Next to the toasted sesame oil, gochujang, and mirin, my pantry has contained a bottle of fish sauce for years. It arrived there when I cooked some Southeast Asian stir-fry recipe that called for it, but then I mostly forgot the bottle as it shuffled further into the pantry recesses. I can admit when I’ve made mistakes, and forgetting about fish sauce is indeed a grave culinary wrong.
Too many of us consider it overpowering or intimidating, a condiment reserved only for that one sauce recipe. We’ve been lied to. Fish sauce, made from fermented anchovies and salt, is in fact a versatile seasoning for all manner of dishes. Like Worcestershire sauce, it adds a layer of indefinable savory flavor, a touch of fermented depth, and even—if you’re using a fish sauce made with fructose or hydrolyzed wheat protein—a thread of sweetness.
My revelation came a few years ago when Chicago Tribune food writer Nick Kindelsperger recommended roasting broccoli with a drizzle of olive oil and fish sauce. I tried it and saw the light. There was nothing particularly fishy about the resulting vegetables, but they benefited from from a boost of salty complexity, a slightly nutty intrigue. Eager to apply this element to more than just broccoli, I spoke to two experts of Southeast Asian food to learn what other unexpected foods could benefit from a dash of fish sauce.
“Add just a couple drops in the eggs and you’re good to go; you don’t need anything else,” says Genevieve Vang, chef and owner at Dearborn, Michigan’s Bangkok 96 and a recent James Beard Award semifinalist. She stresses restraint here—really, just the tiniest of splashes will do it. Because good fish sauce is complex in flavor, she says, you won’t need to add any other seasonings.
Too often, cooks only reach for fish sauce when cooking Asian dishes. Andrea Nguyen, author of the new book Vietnamese Food Any Day, says that it can also lend a hand to European dishes like marinara sauce. When you just need “that extra hit of umami depth,” you can use a light amount of fish sauce at the front end of cooking a marinara or spaghetti sauce. Combined with garlic’s pungency and tomatoes’ acidity, the fish sauce won’t be straightforwardly detectable.
If anchovies work on pizza, why not fish sauce, Vang asks. She’s previously made what she calls a Thai pizza that combines cheese and vegetables with a drizzle of fish sauce for a rich, fermented tang. If you like anchovies, she says, remember that fish sauce is derived from them.
As my colleague and neighborhood chili cook-off competitor Gwen Ihnat noted, many winning chilis benefit from an unusual but savory ingredient, whether molé or Indian spices or, why not, fish sauce. Nguyen says to reach for that sauce “once you’ve added enough sugar and salt and you need a little stealthy something.”
My Takeout colleague Kevin Pang especially loves Caesar salad. Sometimes, he said, there’s no tube of anchovy paste in the fridge. “But I always have fish sauce in the cupboard, so I add a few dashes and you really can’t tell the difference. I soak a clove of minced garlic in a tablespoon of lemon juice. Add to it one egg yolk, splash in some fish sauce. Then I whisk with canola and olive oil until it’s the consistency of dressing I desire.”
Of course, many more savory dishes open themselves up to fish sauce possibilities: pozole, shrimp scampi, chicken noodle soup. As you get creative with your fish-sauce experimentation, Nguyen says you’ll be fine as long as you remember there are three major ways to incorporate it into your cooking: on its own as an unctuous dipping sauce for certain Asian foods, as a fragrant finishing sauce for soups or sauces or stir-frys, and as a “stealthy” savory booster when applied early in the cooking process.
No matter how and when you incorporate it, Vang says, remember that a little bit goes a long way: “It’s like soy sauce for other cuisines. But don’t use a tablespoon or even a teaspoon at a time—just a couple drops” is plenty.