Fish sauce

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A drop of fish sauce
Fish sauce being made in Phú Quốc, Vietnam

Fish sauce is a liquid condiment made from fish that have been coated in salt and fermented for up to two years.[1]:234 It is used as a staple seasoning in the cuisines of Southeast and East Asia, particularly Indonesian, Burmese, Cambodian, Filipino, Thai, Lao, and Vietnamese.

Following widespread recognition of its ability to impart a savory umami flavor to dishes, it has been embraced globally by chefs and home cooks. The umami flavor in fish sauce is due to its glutamate content.[2] Soy sauce is regarded by some in the West as a vegetarian alternative to fish sauce.[1]:234

Fish sauce is not only added to dishes as a seasoning, but also used as a base in dipping sauces.



Sauces that included fermented fish parts with other ingredients such as meat and soya bean were recorded in China 2300 years ago.[3] During the Zhou dynasty of ancient China, fish fermented with soybeans and salt was used as a condiment.[4][5] By the time of the Han dynasty, soy beans were fermented without the fish into soy paste and its by-product soy sauce.[6]:346, 358-359 with fermented fish-based sauces developing separately into fish sauce.[7] A fish sauce, called kôechiap in Hokkien Chinese, or kecap in Indonesia might be the precursor of ketchup.[8][1]:233

By 50–100 BC, demand for fish pastes in China had fallen drastically, with fermented bean products having become a major trade commodity. Fish sauce, however, developed massive popularity in Southeast Asia. Food scholars traditionally divide East Asia into two distinct condiment regions, separated by a bean-fish divide: Southeast Asia, mainly using fermented fish (Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia) and Northeast Asia, using mainly fermented beans (China, Korea, Japan). Fish sauce re-entered China in the 17th and 18th centuries, brought from Vietnam and Cambodia by Chinese traders up the coast of the southern provinces Guangdong and Fujian.[9]


Historically, fish sauces were widely used in ancient Mediterranean cuisine. The earliest recorded production was between 4th–3rd century BC by the Ancient Greeks, who fermented scraps of fish called garos into one.[1]:235[10] It is believed to have been made with a lower salt content than modern fish sauces.[11]

The Romans made a similar condiment called either garum or liquamen.[1]:235 According to Pliny the Elder, "garum consists of the guts of fish and other parts that would otherwise be considered refuse, so that garum is really the liquor from putrefaction."[12] Garum was made in the Roman outposts of Spain almost exclusively from mackerel by salting the scrap fish innards, and then sun fermenting the flesh until it fell apart, usually for several months. The brown liquid would then be strained, bottled, and sold as a condiment. The process lasted until the 16th century, when garum makers switched to anchovy and removed the innards.[1]:235

Garum was ubiquitous in Classical Roman cooking. Mixed with wine it was known as oenogarum, or with vinegar, oxygarum, or mixed with honey, meligarum. Garum was one of the trade specialties in Hispania Baetica.[13][page needed] Garum was frequently maligned as smelling bad or rotten, being called, for example, "evil-smelling fish sauce"[14] and is said to be similar to modern Colatura di Alici, a fish sauce used in Neapolitan cuisine.[who?]

In English garum was formerly translated as fishpickle. The original Worcestershire sauce is a related product because it is fermented and contains anchovies.

Ingredients and manufacture[edit]

Fish sauces historically have been prepared from different species of fish and shellfish, and from using the whole fish, or by using just fish blood or viscera. Most modern fish sauces contain only fish and salt, usually made from anchovy, shrimp, mackerel, or other strong-flavored, high oil fish. Some variants add herbs and spices. For modern fish sauces, fish or shellfish is mixed with salt at a concentration of 10% to 30%. It is then sealed in a closed container for up to two years.[1]:234

Once the original draft has been made, some fish sauces will be produced through a re-extraction of the fish mass via boiling. To improve the visual appearance and add taste, second-pass fish sauces often have added caramel, molasses, or roasted rice.[1]:234 They are thinner, and less costly. Some volume manufacturers of fish sauce will also water down a first-press to manufacture more product.

Fish sauce that has been only briefly fermented has a pronounced fishy taste. Extended fermentation reduces this and gives the product a nuttier, richer and more savory flavor.[according to whom?] An anonymous article, "Neuc-num", in Diderot and d'Alembert's 18th-century Encyclopédie, states: "It is said that Europeans become accustomed enough to this type of sauce".[15]


While there is no strict grading system for fish sauces, first-tapping, or first-pressing sauces are the most sought after. Some top brands are beginning to adopt the "Extra Virgin" designation and tout more artisan processes.[16][1]:234 Second-pass or volume sauces are easily identified as they have a thin, very watery consistency.

Regional variations[edit]

Southeast Asia[edit]

Southeast Asian fish sauce is often made from anchovies, salt, and water, and is intensely flavoured. Anchovies and salt are arranged in wooden barrels to ferment and are slowly pressed, yielding the salty, fishy liquid. The salt extracts the liquid via osmosis.

Southeast Asians generally use fish sauce as a cooking sauce. However, there is a sweet and sour version of this sauce which is used more commonly as a dipping sauce (see nước chấm).


Fish sauce in Burma is called ngan bya yay (ငံပြာရည်).[citation needed]


In Cambodia, fish sauce is known as teuk trei (ទឹកត្រី), of which there are a variety of sauces using fish sauce as a base.[citation needed]


The Indonesian semi-solid fish paste or fermented krill terasi, the Cambodian prahok and the Malay fermented krill brick belacan or budu from liquid anchovies are other popular variations of fish sauces.


In Lao/Isan, it is called nam pa. A chunkier, more aromatic version known as padaek is also used.[citation needed]


The similar Philippine version common to Indochina is called patis. Patis, a by-product of bagoong, is nearly always cooked prior to consumption, even when used as an accent to salads or other raw dishes. Patis is also used as an ingredient in cooked dishes, including a rice porridge called arroz caldo, and as a condiment for fried fish. Patis is also used in place of table salt in meals to enhance the flavor of the food, where it can either be dashed from a dispensing bottle onto the food, or poured into a saucer and mixed with calamansi and used as a dipping sauce.


Fish sauce in Thailand is called nam pla (Thai: น้ำปลา). In Isan, it is called nam pa. Similar to the Laotian padaek is pla ra (Thai: ปลาร้า), also used in Thai cuisine. In Thailand, fish sauce is used both in cooking and also served at the table as a condiment, for instance in noodle soups. Nearly every Thai meal is served with phrik nam pla as a condiment: a mixture of fish sauce, lime juice, and chopped bird's eye chilies. Sliced garlic and lemon juice are often added to this sauce.

Historically, there were two types of fish sauce made in Thailand: that made with a fresh-water fish, pla soi, and sauce made from a salt-water fish, pla kratak. Either fish is fermented for at least eight months, three parts fish to two parts salt. The resulting mash is filtered. This yields the best fish sauce, called the "base". The dregs are then mixed with water and salt and again fermented for three to four months. This yields a second-grade fish sauce, mostly used in cooking.[17]

In 2014, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the import of Thai fish sauces due to lack of information about tests for botulinum toxin. The toxin can cause death if more than 0.5 microgram is consumed. The Thai Office of Food Safety and Quality then tested 48 brands of fish sauce to determine the content of botulinum toxin in the products. Of 48 brands tested, 28 were genuine fish sauce from 18 production sites in 12 provinces. Twenty samples from production sites in eight provinces were adulterated fish sauce. Tests showed that none were contaminated with botulinum toxin types A, B, E and F and were free of clostridium botulinum bacteria.[18] In 2018, rumours again surfaced concerning banned Thai fish sauce.[19]


The variety from Vietnam is called nước mắm.[20] Two areas in Vietnam are most famous for producing fish sauce: Phú Quốc and Phan Thiết. Popular brands in the US include Mega Chef, Red Boat, 3 Crabs, Golden Boy, and Hòn Phan Thiết.[21]

Vietnamese fish sauces are made with anchovies, mackerel, scabbard fish and salt. The bigger the fish, the more mercury you might expect, especially if predator fish like scabbard fish. They do not have any additives like sugar, hydrolyzed protein, or preservatives.[22] Vietnamese prefer sauces without a strong smell, and transparent with a deep golden amber color. "First press" fish sauce, meaning the sauce is bottled from the first time the fermenting barrels are drained, also indicates quality. Lastly, when measuring the nitrogen level of fish sauces (N), most fish sauce on the market falls within the mid 20N range. Anything over 30N is considered high-grade, and 40N is optimal.[23]

Nước chấm is a Vietnamese prepared fish-based condiment (also referred to as a "sauce") that is savory, lightly sweet and salty tasting, and can be sour and spicy if lime and chili peppers are added. The main components are fish sauce, water, and sugar. Nước mắm is made much like fish sauce, except that it is not fermented as long, and the fish is kept along with its liquid extract, not just the extract. Mắm can be used as a base condiment in dipping sauces with additional ingredients or used in soups or stir-fries.

In January 2016, the Institute of Food Technologists published a study asserting that the "Vietnamese fish sauce added to chicken broth, tomato sauce and coconut curry reduced the amount of sodium chloride by 10-25 percent while still maintaining the perceived deliciousness, saltiness and overall flavor intensity."[24]

East Asia[edit]


In China, fish sauce is called yúlù (Chinese: 鱼露, literally "fish dew") and is native to the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian.


In Japan, fish sauce variations are used as a seasoning of local specialties. Ishiru in the Noto Peninsula is made from sardine and squid. Shottsuru of Akita Prefecture is mainly made from sailfin sandfish. Ikanago shoyu of Kagawa Prefecture is made from sand lance. They are often reserved for the preparation of nabemono.


In Korea, fish sauce is called eojang (어장).

Across the Korean Peninsula, aekjeot (액젓, literally "liquid jeotgal"), a type of fish sauce usually made from fermented anchovies or sand lances, is used as a crucial ingredient in many types of kimchi, both for taste and fermentation.[25][26]

In Jeju island, eoganjang (어간장), made of fermented godori (young chub mackerels) or horse mackerels, is used in place of soy sauce.


Colatura di Alici is an Italian fish sauce.

Worcestershire sauce contains fermented anchovies among other ingredients.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (Kindle ed.). Scribners.
  2. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 18 February 2009. Retrieved 6 September 2009.
  3. ^ Butler, Stephanie (2012-07-20). "Ketchup: A Saucy History". History. Retrieved 2017-04-04.
  4. ^ "调料文化:酱油的由来". Retrieved 2018-06-21.
  5. ^ zh:酱
  6. ^ Hsing-Tsung, Huang (2000). Joseph Needham: Science and Civilisation in China, Vol.6, Part 5. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521652707.
  7. ^ Kurlansky, Mark (2002). Salt: A World History. New York: Walker and Co. p. 20. ISBN 978-0-8027-1373-5.
  8. ^ Lakshmi Gandhi (2013-12-03). "Ketchup: The All-American Condiment That Comes From Asia". NPR. Retrieved 2017-04-04.
  9. ^ Lim, Lisa (2017-07-21). "When China invented ketchup in 300BC, and how it morphed from a preserved fish sauce to sweet tomato gloop". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 2018-11-25.
  10. ^ Farnworth, Edward R. (2003). Handbook of Fermented Functional Foods. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press. p. 22. ISBN 0849313724.
  11. ^ Grainger, Sally. "Fish Sauce: An Ancient Condiment". Good Food SAT OCT 1, 2011. National Public Radio. Retrieved 26 October 2011.
  12. ^ Natural History Pliny, the Elder.
  13. ^ Wilkinson, Paul (2003). "Introduction". Pompeii: The Last Day. London: BBC. ISBN 9780563487708.
  14. ^ Curtis, Robert I. (1 January 1983). "In Defense of Garum". The Classical Journal. 78 (3): 232–240. JSTOR 3297180.
  15. ^ Diderot, Denis. "Fish Sauce". The Encyclopedia of Diderot and d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  16. ^ How Fish Sauce Is Made -
  17. ^ Sukphisit, Suthon (2018-11-25). "Fish Tails". Bangkok Post. Retrieved 2018-11-25.
  18. ^ "21 brands of Thai fish sauce free from botulinum toxin". Thai PBS. 2017-02-06. Retrieved 2018-11-25.
  19. ^ "FDA denies US ban on fish sauce from Thailand". The Nation. 2018-10-25. Retrieved 25 November 2018.
  20. ^ Robuchon, Joël (2009). Larousse Gastronomique (Updated ed.). London: Hamlyn. p. 714. ISBN 9780600620426.
  21. ^ Kyle Hildebrant (2014-02-17). "Fish Sauce Taste Test, 13 Brands Compared — Our Daily Brine". Retrieved 2017-04-04.
  22. ^ Stanton, J. (2012-05-02). "What Are "Hydrolyzed Soy Protein" And "Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein," And Why Are They In Everything?". Retrieved 2017-04-04.
  23. ^ "Everything you want to know about Phu Quoc Fish Sauce". Retrieved 2017-04-04.
  24. ^ "A New Alternative to Sodium: Fish Sauce". Institute of Food Technologists. 15 January 2016. Retrieved 16 April 2018.
  25. ^ The Confidentials (2016-11-01). "REVIEW | Seoul Kimchi, Upper Brook Street | Confidentials Manchester". Manchester: Manchester Confidential. Retrieved 2017-04-04.
  26. ^ "Thousands prepare kimchi feast for Seoul's poor". Channel NewsAsia. Archived from the original on 8 November 2016. Retrieved 8 November 2016.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]