Thai fish sauce is one of the basic ingredients in Thai cooking, along with much of Asian cuisine. It has a rich, translucent reddish-golden brown color and is added liberally to nearly all Thai dishes. It is often used as a marinade for fish and meat, as well as a condiment, usually mixed with fresh chilies and lime juice. If you travel to Thailand, you may come across it on restaurant tables, where it's added to meals customarily in the same way Americans would use salt and pepper.
Found: grocery stores, Asian food markets
Distinct flavor: salty fish
What Is Fish Sauce?
Good fish sauces are made from a mixture of fish and salt that has been allowed to ferment for up to two years. Traditionally, oily fish such as anchovies are placed in a barrel with salt and slowly pressed to extract the liquid. Anchovies are often used, although some fish sauces are also made from shrimp, krill, or mackerel. The basic ingredients of a good fish sauce are fish, water, and salt. Sometimes sugars such as caramel or molasses are added, or roasted rice, but it isn't necessary.
Fish sauce is referred to as nam pla in Thailand, teuk trei in Cambodia, nam pa in Laos, patis in the Philippines, and ngan bya yay in Burma. Despite its widespread use and primary identification with Asian cuisine, fish sauce is believed to date back to the ancient Greeks who fished along the Black Sea; the Romans called it garum.
Fish Sauce vs. Oyster Sauce
It could be easy to confuse these two because of their briny, saucy similarities, but they are definitely different products. Fish sauce is watery, clear, and salty. Oyster sauce is sweeter with a hint of salt; it's made by reducing oyster extracts. Its aroma is not as strong as that of fish sauce.
Fish Sauce Uses
Nam pla is one of those ingredients that adds what may seem like a certain indescribable element to a number of Asian dishes, but once you begin to work with it, you can detect its presence and develop a sense of how to balance its flavor in recipes for marinades, dipping sauces, and stir-fries. It's key to the dipping sauce nuoc cham in Vietnamese cuisine, for example, where it's combined with lime juice, sugar, garlic, and chiles.
What Does It Taste Like?
Fish sauce tastes fishy and salty, and a little bit funky, but in a good way. It's often used with lime juice and other ingredients, which aids in balancing out the flavor and aroma. Since it's not always used by itself as a stand-alone product, it doesn't necessarily make a dish taste "fishy," unless it's used in excess. It adds that savory umami element. Just a drop or two, for example, is often added to noodle dishes like a condiment, at the table, to amplify the flavors a bit.
Fish Sauce Recipes
Asian food prioritizes the balance among various flavor elements, and dishes with fish sauce often will have a sour and sweet component in them, too, to balance the taste. Fish sauce is key to stir-fried dishes; it's an ingredient in pad thai recipes, along with tamarind paste.
Where to Buy Fish Sauce
Most supermarkets sell fish sauce (look for it in the Asian section), but you may find imported brands sold in Asian food stores, especially Chinese, Vietnamese, or Thai. Look for tall bottles with fish sauce and the ingredients displayed on the label (just fish extract, salt, and water—other ingredients aren't necessary). It should be made in Thailand or Vietnam. You can also order nam pla online.
Although it is a misnomer, vegetarian (and vegan) fish sauce does exist and is often made of seaweed instead of fish. Many Vietnamese food markets carry it. However, another good substitute is Golden Mountain sauce (available at Asian markets), regular soy sauce, or a combination of the two. The flavor won't be exactly the same, but you'll still get that umami taste from the glutamates that are present in both nam pla and soy sauce.
Fish sauce keeps for 3 to 4 years at room temperature, opened or unopened.