In Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines, fish sauce is an ingredient which always close to a cook’s hand. We may know it as nam pla or nuoc mam.
But fish sauce has a long pedigree in western cuisine – the Romans were particularly fond of a fermented fish sauce derived from anchovies and it represented an important trade product.
If you are struggling to get something to taste ” just right” – soups, sauces, casseroles, stews, dressings, marinades – then fish sauce will often be the ingredient you need. It’s like a liquid anchovy – a deeply pungent and salty reddish-brown liquid which adds a savoury depth of flavour and magically brings a dish together like nothing else (honestly…. I’ve done blind taste tests with cynical and deeply suspicious family members).
On the tongue, as it were, fish sauce is not pleasant and almost unbearably salty so never use it “straight”. It needs tempering with water or other liquids, lime juice, sugar so use it as you might an intelligent seasoning and go easy on additional salt.
Remember, though, that there are fish sauces and fish sauces. The little bottles that appear on supermarket shelves tend to be a bit wishy-washy and expensive. Source yours from an Asian grocery store and you’ll gain flavour and save money.
Didier Corlou, the French chef at the Sofitel Metropole hotel in Hanoi and author of a charming booklet about nuoc mam, writes that for him it is almost a drug, a seductive seasoning that he relies on every day. (Janet Fletcher, Chronicle Staff Writer 2005). Well….I haven’t (yet) started hiding bottles of around the house, but I do worry when I’m down to that last inch!
Say what you will, but I say this: “Reach for your reach for your fish sauce boys!”