Everything you (didn’t) want to know about fish sauce

This is not a fish story.

Fish sauce has many names and varieties — Thai: nam pla, Vietnamese: nước mắm, Burma: ngan bya yay, Cambodian: teuk trei, Japan: Depends on what’s in it, Korea: jeotgal. In my life, the savory concoction had earned a few nicknames from friends discovering it for the first time — “that stuff you always hid in the rice” and “never bring that to work, ever again” stick out the most.

Fish sauce is one of the most commonly-used condiments in Asian cooking. Basic fish sauce is made from a combination of anchovies, salt and water. The key is fermentation. Much like aged wine, fish sauce is aged through a process that creates a savory and, to some noses, odorous liquid.

Duncan Robertson of Duncan’s Thai Kitchen explains below.

Interestingly, a strong odor often is an earmark for a better product. A 2013 study by researchers at Mahidol University in Bangkok found a correlation between a fish sauce’s perceived odor and its total nitrogen (TN) content, a measurement used when grading a product.1 Sauces that registered as shrimp paste-like, anchovy-like, sweet and fishy tended to have the highest TN concentrations.

While the thought of fermented anchovies left sitting in the sun may not sound appealing to everyone, the condiment has become an important staple in Asian, particularly Southeast Asian, cooking and eating.

Many of the recipes you’ll find on this blog will contain fish sauce in some amount. Even if you’re only enjoying a bowl of rice, why not try making a dipping sauce like Prik nam pla, such as this one from Food.com.

Side note: “Bird’s Eye Chilies” are known in Thai as Prik Kee Noo. I usually obtain these through my local farmers’ market or trips home to Mom.

References

  1. Wichaphon, J. et. Al. (April 2013). “Categorization of Thai Fish Sauce Based on Aroma Characteristics.” Journal of Food Quality, 36(2): 91-97. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.proxy.mul.missouri.edu/doi/10.1111/jfq.12017/full
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