Dark funky and fishy, fish sauce is the ubiquitous ingredient necessary for almost every Southeast Asian dish. At first, you might be taken aback by me even mentioning fish sauce but as any knowledgeable cook will tell you, they have a deep love for the stuff. When used in moderation, fish sauce adds incredible depth of flavor and an underlying umami to the dish. In other words, you will taste a savory undertone as opposed to a fishy one. Your favorite foods like pho (Vietnamese noodle soup), pad thai, green chicken curry and cucumber salad would not be the same without fish sauce.
The key ingredient in fish sauce, is of course, fish, but, not just any fish - the humble anchovy. As the story goes, the invention of fish sauce was sort of by accident. Anchovies are a small oily fish that contain almost no salt naturally. To preserve the petite fish, the Thai's packed them in salt. The salt would in turn extract the fish's natural liquid which later resulted in the fish sauce we know and love today. This process has been perfected by manufacturers and this precious dark liquid is bottled and sold all over the world. It is important to know that not all fish sauce is created equal so read the label carefully and opt for brands that list fish as one of the first ingredient. Stay away from those market sauces that include additives, artificial sweeteners and preservatives.
If you are unfamiliar cooking with fish sauce, start with cuisines like Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, and Southern Chinese that rely heavily on the condiment. Perhaps create an array of dishes based on your favorite take-out menu or use fish sauce as the gateway to broaden your culinary horizons. Fish sauce can almost be used in place of similar condiments like Worcestershire sauce or soy sauce. Add a splash to your stir-fry, meatballs, or even bloody mary.
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