I’m pretty sure that if I let you sniff some fish sauce, it would be pretty hard to convince you to cook with it. No, the potent, nigh-on acrid scent is not this beloved sauce’s most seductive asset.
And funnily enough, it’s not even its flavor (at least not on its own) that would win you over. It’s what happens when you dribble a little fish sauce into stir-fries, curries, marinades, even salad dressings.
Suddenly, your dish takes on a depth of flavor you hadn’t previously detected, a complexity that you can’t quite put your finger on, a strong punch of meatiness without tasting meaty.
And that pungent aroma? You won’t be able to detect it. But you won’t want to go without this precious bottle of fish sauce again.
It’s a rather ego-less ingredient in that way; fish sauce is not at its best on its own. But my, what a team player. And it’s that ability, to transform its fellow co-habitants into something better than they were before, that has won the hearts of cooks throughout Southeast Asia, from Thailand and Vietnam to Indonesia.
It’s incredible what just two ingredients, anchovies and salt — the building blocks of fish sauce — can transform into when left to their own devices for a few months. Indeed, this kind of fish sauce is actually related to modern day Worcestershire sauce, which also is a fermented anchovy-based sauce.
Use it as you would soy sauce, to amp up the umami-ness of whatever you happen to be whipping up for dinner. Just one hint: Balance out all that saltiness with just a dash of brown sugar and a good squeeze of lime juice, as I do in my Vietnamese-style skirt steak.
You don’t have to make an Asian-style marinade either. I’ve made a great one using fish sauce, balsamic vinegar, honey and garlic.