Fish sauce, or fermented fish sauce, is a flavoring ingredient or condiment that is extracted from fish. It is heavily used in Thai cooking. Although, other Asian cuisines, as well as, some Western preparations also make use of the ingredient, it is mostly associated with the cuisine of Thailand. The sauce is essentially a brown, salty liquid with a pungent smell. In Thailand, the flavoring agent is considered indispensible and traditionalists strongly believe that food of the region would not be same without it.
Locally, the sauce is known as 'nam bplah' which literally means 'fish water'. It is quite important in Vietnamese cuisine as well. The glutamate content of the sauce helps impart an umami flavor to food.
Fermented Fish Sauce: History
Fish sauce has a very long history and its origin is often traced to Vietnam where the sauce was a common household preparation. Each family had a secret recipe to make the sauce and most popular were sauces from the areas of Phu Quoc and Phan Thiet. While this theory associates the sauce and its invention directly to Asia, there is another popular theory which insists that the sauce was brought to Asia from the Roman Empire. Centuries ago, the condiment was made in Roman and was known as 'garum'. The Romans fermented fish in brines for days on end, under the sun, and then flavored the resulting liquid with wine, spices and/or oil.
The sauce is extensively used in cuisines of Thailand and Vietnam which makes the theory linking its origin to Asia more believable. Over the years, the sauce has become a commercial commodity from a household one and the inudstry is one of the biggest industries in Vietnam and Thailand.
Fermented Fish Sauce: Production Overview
Fish sauce is best when prepared from fresh fish. This is very important to ensure that the condiment develops its trademark pleasant taste and unique aroma. The fish are washed and drained as soon as they are brought to land and then mixed with sea salt. Bottoms of large earthenware jars are lined with salt, the fish are filled into them and a layer of salt is placed on the top. Over the fish, a woven bamboo mat is placed and heavy rocks are used to weigh down the mat so that the fish do not float when water is extracted from inside them due to the presence of salt and the fermentation process.
The covered jars are left out in the sun for 9 months to 1 year. Periodically, the jars are uncovered to let the air out and expose the fish to direct, hot sunshine. After the required time has passed, the liquid is taken out from the jar and strained. The resultant sauce is filled in clean containers and it is ready for use.
Fermented Fish Sauce: Culinary Uses
The sauce is a very important ingredient in cuisines of Vietnam and Thailand as well as in various other Southeast Asian cuisines. It is used as a flavoring agent in various dishes and is added to preparations while they are being cooked. In addition, the sauce is used in mixed form as a dip. In salads, soups and meat dishes, the sauce adds a distinct flavor. It is used for sea food in particular and is believed to enhance the flavors of fish and shrimp. In beef, pork and chicken dishes as well, the sauce is added.
In southern China, fish sauce is an important ingredient in casseroles and soups.
Variations of Nam Bplah
There are various different types of fish sauce. Some are made from dried fish, while others are extracted from raw fish. Also, there are varieties made from a single species of fish while some others are made from different species and might include shellfish as well.
The fermentation time also differs based on the variety being prepared. For a light sauce with a fishy flavor, the fermentation time is short while a longer time period results in a cheesier, nuttier taste.
The sauce is made from salt, water and anchovies in Southeast Asia and is used in moderation because the flavor is very intense.
In the Philippines, a variety of the sauce called patis, in a loose liquid form, is mainly used in making a type of chicken porridge which is locally known as arroz caldo.
The Japanese variation of fish sauce, called Ishiru, is made from squid and sardine. Aekjeot is the local name of the Korean variety of the fish sauce.
Fermented Fish Sauce: Buying and Storing
The sauce can be purchased online as well as in grocery stores. Authentic imports are richer in taste and are mostly available for purchase in Asian specialty markets. It is important to ensure that the product being purchased is a genuine one. A good sauce has a delicate, translucent amber color and looks like freshly brewed tea. Clarity and price are the two most important factors which should be kept in mind when shopping for the sauce.
The sauce should be kept in a cool dry place. Although fish sauce has a long shelf life, it should be immediately replaced if the liquid starts to darken.