Each southeast Asian country makes fish sauce. Photo©Getty

Each southeast Asian country makes fish sauce. Photo©Getty

Fish sauce is an essential basic ingredient in the cooking of most southeast Asian countries, such as Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and the Philippines, as well as parts of southern China. It is usually served with cooked or raw fish, meat or vegetables and is used in place of salt or soy.

 Baskets of fresh anchovies - the main ingredient of fish sauce. photo © Getty

Baskets of fresh anchovies - the main ingredient of fish sauce. photo © Getty

Most fish sauces are made from raw fish, usually small fish that are plentiful.  The best sauces are made from just one kind of fish, but some are made from a mixture of fish. Most often, it is made from layers of fresh anchovies layered with salt in huge wooden or terracotta barrels. The fish and salt are left in the barrels for about six months, during which time the salt causes the fish to dissolve. This is called fermentation.  

 Terracotta barrels of fermenting fish sauce in Vietnam . Photo©Getty

Terracotta barrels of fermenting fish sauce in Vietnam . Photo©Getty

The general process is that after three months, the liquid is drained off and then either bottled as a light, golden liquid that doesn't have a strong smell, or it is poured back over the fish in the barrel to ferment some more.  After another three months, the liquid is removed again. This produces a richer, darker sauce that is used at table on its own or as a base for sauces. Water is then added to the barrels and the fish is pressed again,  from which a lighter, weaker liquid is produced which is used in cooking such as stir fries or stews. 

Fish sauce probably originated in Vietnam, where it is called nuoc mam. The best nuoc mam is made on the island of Phu Quoc. Vietnamese fish sauce is a light golden liquid, from the first time the barrels are drained. It is either included when food is cooking or added at the table as a sauce. Nuoc mam also contains nutrients essential for good health, such as minerals and amino acids.

 Fish sauce is an ingredient of the famous Pad Thai noodle dish. Photo©Getty

Fish sauce is an ingredient of the famous Pad Thai noodle dish. Photo©Getty

In Thailand, fish sauce is called nam pla and in Myanmar (Burma) it is called ngan bya yay. In Laos the sauce is chunkier and smells stronger. In Japan, it is used as a seasoning. In some parts it is made from sardine and squid, while in others sailfish or other local fish are used. Korean fish sauce is very similar to the Japanese fish sauces.

Vietnamese food is generally accompanied by a dipping sauce, a balance of sour, sweet, salty and spicy flavours. The sauce is regarded as an essential part of finishing a dish, not as an optional extra. 

 Vietnameses fried spring rolls served with a dipping sauce. Photo©Getty

Vietnameses fried spring rolls served with a dipping sauce. Photo©Getty

Nuoc mam is used to form a basic dipping sauce or used as a dressing for other foods such as spring rolls. The dipping sauce is sometimes called nuoc mam cham (or just nuoc cham), and must be a balance of salty (from the fish sauce), chilli and sweet.

To make it, combine ¼ cup each of fish sauce and rice vinegar in a saucepan, with 2 tablespoons of sugar. Stir over a low heat to dissolve the sugar. Before it boils, take it off the heat to cool. Add finely chopped garlic and chilli, and the juice of one lime.

There are other popular sauces served with Vietnamese food. One is mam tom, a purple-coloured sauce made with shrimp, which is served with fried fish. Peanut sauce is another popular sauce. Another sauce, called nuoc leo, is made from fermented bean curd. It is not as strong in flavour as nuoc mam, so many western visitors to Vietnam prefer it.

 

Read more about fish sauce:

http://tablematters.com/2013/03/14/something-fishy/

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