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All About Fish Sauce: Substitutes, History, Best Brand and more

All About Fish Sauce: Substitutes, History, Best Brand and more

Sometimes, salt isn’t enough. When your recipes need a more complex kick of saltiness and umami, you should be reaching for fish sauce. This fermented sauce packs an irresistible combination of briny, earth, and umami flavors that has become one of the prominent taste profiles in Southeast Asian cuisine.

But what is it exactly? How is fish sauce made and how does it differ from other briny sauces? In this blog, we answer all your questions on fish sauce, share recipes that use this ember-colored umami bomb, and list down alternatives that you can use in case it’s hard to get your hands on this sauce.

Pro-tip: You can always get the best fish sauce at Karman Foods!

History of Asian Fish Sauce

Fish sauce has long been associated with Southeast Asian cuisine but its origins can be traced back 2,000 years ago in Ancient Greece and Italy. The Greeks and Romans ferment various seafood with salt and herbs in ceramic pots to create Garum. Their version of fish sauce found its way to South India and the Champa Kingdom (modern-day Vietnam and Cambodia) through the silk route.

However, according to Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky, the Champa Kingdom were said to have already developed their own fish-brewing techniques, inspired by how the Chinese brewed their soy sauce. Combining the Champa brewing method with Garum-making techniques of European merchants, fish sauce has gained timeless popularity that extends up to this day.

What is Fish Sauce made of?

Red Boat: The Best Fish Sauce Pick for Karman

Annie Chun's Seaweed Snack - Wasabi - .16 Oz.
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Red Boat’s Premium Fish Sauce ticks all the boxes for quality fish sauce. It is made from first press, extra virgin fish sauce. This means that the liquid in each bottle comes from the first time the fermented barrels are drained. It also has a beautiful, transparent amber hue that shows how pure the sauce is!

Nitrogen level is the measure of the intensity and quality of fish sauce. The higher the better. Regular store-bought fish sauces are usually in the mid-20N range. But in Red Boat’s case, it’s marked 40°N. That makes it an optimal fish sauce for all types of cuisines!

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Fish Sauce Alternatives

If you have a vegan or vegetarian diet or may simply be allergic to seafood, you may be looking for good fish-free sauce substitutes to replace fish sauce. But as with many ingredients, don’t expect to find the perfect match for the rich, umami taste of fish sauce, but there are a few that come pretty close!

Soy sauce is probably the most accessible fish sauce alternative there is. Any grocery store has soy sauce, and there’s a high chance that you already have this in your kitchens.

You may not find that sharp and complex taste of seafood with soy sauce, but it has the same liquid consistency and comes close to the saltiness that fish sauce offers. Use it as a seasoning sauce for stir-fries, noodles, fried rice, and more!

In case you’re allergic to soy, sensitive to gluten, or looking for a healthier alternative to both soy sauce and fish sauce, Coconut Aminos should work fine.

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Tamari is the best gluten-free fish sauce alternative (although it’s always a good idea to double-check the label for any wheat content). Tamari is just like your traditional soy sauce, minus the wheat. It may have a higher soybean content and uses rich-tasting miso paste but it is less salty and more mellow than soy sauce. It’s also darker and a little thicker in texture which may slightly affect your original recipe.

A 1:1 ratio should work when replacing fish sauce in your recipe.

Annie Chun's Seaweed Snack - Wasabi - .16 Oz.
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Oyster sauce offers the same briny, seafood taste as fish sauce because this seasoning sauce is made from oyster extract. If you have no fish allergy or dietary restrictions to worry about, oyster sauce is a great fish sauce substitute for vegetable and meat stir-fries. Do expect a hint of sweetness in your recipe when using oyster sauce as an alternative because this sauce is typically made with sugar.

Another thing to note is that oyster sauce is much thicker than fish sauce. You may opt to add water to your oyster sauce to thin it out then do a quick taste test to see if it meets your standards.

Annie Chun's Seaweed Snack - Wasabi - .16 Oz.
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Hoisin may mean “seafood” in Chinese but it doesn’t contain any fish or seafood ingredients. Made with soybeans, chili peppers, garlic, vinegar, and often sugar, it does offer the same umami of fish sauce with a touch of barbeque-like sweetness to it. You can mix equal parts soy sauce with the hoisin sauce should you wish to get rid of its sweet taste and get closer to the taste of fish sauce.

Similar to oyster sauce, it has a thicker consistency than fish sauce. Thinning it out is also be a good idea.

Annie Chun's Seaweed Snack - Wasabi - .16 Oz.
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Cooking with Fish Sauce

Fish sauce is the kind of condiment that you can use anywhere! Its versatility and complex flavors are two characteristics that have made fish sauce so popular among professional chefs and home cooks alike.

In Vietnam, fish sauce is referred to as nuoc mam and is considered a staple condiment. Some Vietnamese use fish sauce to marinate their meats, but some also suggest adding fish sauce to recipes only when simmering or during the latter stages of cooking to prevent your meats from being too tough. It’s also mixed with lime juice, sugar, vinegar, and other spices to make a dipping sauce called nuoc cham. This sweet, salty, and spicy condiment is typically served with Vietnamese spring rolls, rice noodles, and more.

Similarly, a mixture of fish sauce, lime juice, and chopped chilis called phrik nam pla is typically served in every meal in Thailand as a dipping sauce. It’s also an essential flavoring sauce for popular Thai dishes such as som tum green papaya salad, pad thai, and more.

In the Philippines, fish sauce is called patis, and is used as a multi-purpose sauce. It’s used as a seasoning sauce for dishes like rice porridge and tinola. Sometimes, it’s also mixed with chili peppers and vinegar to make a spiced vinegar sawsawan or dipping sauce.

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Fish sauce may come with a pungent fishy smell but once you overcome your aversions to its smell and focus on its savory and deep earthy flavors, this condiment can add instant depth to your recipes, especially Southeast Asian ones. I consider fish sauce as the secret ingredient behind the global success of dishes like pad thai, green papaya salad, and spring rolls. Don’t miss out on having this umami bomb of a condiment in your kitchens!

For all your Southeast Asian grocery needs, shop at Karman Foods!

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