Made from fermented small fish such as anchovies, fish sauce has been produced in Europe and Asia for thousands of years, but in more recent times, it’s become associated with southeast Asian cuisine, particularly Thai and Vietnamese. And just within the past several years, it has been more widely embraced by American consumers as well.
The magical thing about fish sauce its power to make just about any dish taste better without becoming the dominant flavor. It’s the ultimate team player, something you always want to have with you in the kitchen. Here’s how the Takeout staff and some of our favorite chefs like to use it.
In place of anchovies
Fish sauce is such a versatile ingredient and an essential ingredient in Thai cooking. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to cook without it. In Thailand, a bowl of fish sauce with sliced fresh chilies is like the salt and pepper shakers on the table; you’ll see that in most homes and at most casual eateries.
But there are also many other situations not related to Thai food where fish sauce comes in handy for me. For example, when I run out of canned anchovies or anchovy paste to use as a seasoning in an Italian dish, like tonnato sauce, I end up using fish sauce because that’s the one thing I never fail to have in the pantry. I think I’ve even made Caesar salad dressing with fish sauce a couple of times. —Leela Punyaratabandhu, cookbook author of Flavors of the Southeast Asian Grill: Classic Recipes for Seafood and Meats Cooked Over Charcoal
As a flavor booster to anything savory
Man, I love fish sauce. Unless I’m using it as a main seasoning ingredient in an Asian dish (Leela’s pork shoulder is so simple and absolutely delicious), I do what a lot of chefs do, which is use it as a flavor booster. I add a small splash to savory sauces, meat-based soups, anything with mushrooms in it, marinades, and dipping sauces. It’s powerfully delicious as-is, but when you cook it, its loud-smelling funkiness disappears and melds straight into whatever you’re making. Basically, it’s like adding MSG to your dish, sans shaker. It’s an indispensable part of my pantry, and honestly, you should always have a bottle on hand. —Dennis Lee, staff writer
As a secret weapon
I was raised in an environment where food was bland and mostly European—by which I mean meat, potatoes, and Italian. So Asian food was a revelation to me when I left home. I was so in awe that it did not occur to me that I could cook it at home. (Yes, I know that millions of people cook Asian food at home. I mean that I, personally, could not cook Asian food at home.) Then I found myself living down the street from an international supermarket, which sold an infinite variety of fish sauces, and I saw the light. Fish sauce plays a major role in my favorite marinade, and also in this old Orangette recipe for beef with chilis that I eat when I’m feeling sluggish and need to pump my blood up. It’s a marvel, every time. —Aimee Levitt, associate editor
To transform roasted vegetables
When I roast broccoli or cauliflower, I roast them. I like my vegetables to be the brownest of browns with plenty of crispy bits, which is why instead of tossing them in oil before they hit the 475-degree oven, I use mayonnaise, which sticks like glue in every cruciferous crack and cranny. And when I’m looking for a crazy-simple-yet-intensely-flavorful side dish, I’ll toss vegetables with mayo mixed with garlic, salt, and fish sauce. Sometimes dinner is nothing but a gigantic plate of roasted broccoli topped with a fried egg, and it’s as satisfying as something that took a hell of a lot more brainpower. —Allison Robicelli, staff writer