Written By: Jean Heimann
1st Awesome Point: the How
Fresh little anchovies and occasionally shellfish are layered with salt and packed into giant vats. Bamboo and rocks are placed on top applying a minimum amount of pressure that keeps the little fishies bobbing below their juices. Their juices are drawn out by the salt and the ambient heat of day in countries like Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines. After aging for several months and even up to a year the fish sauce is drained out of the vats and bottled.
2nd Awesome Point: the What
Just like Extra Virgin Olive Oil, fish sauce has its own equivalent called the First Extraction or First Press. It’s top notch and special. It’s a dark red amber liquid that should smell a bit like dried mushrooms and taste briny while finishing on a sweet note. It shouldn’t be just fishy, fishy, fishy. There is first extraction and then there is every day fish sauce and here the quality varies. Take a whiff and taste; porcini and briny fish or just dead fish? For a good solid nuoc mam, the Vietnamese Fish sauce, stick with a 40°N or 30°N. The °N on labels for Vietnamese fish sauce indicates nitrogen and protein levels, the higher the number the more complex and yummy it is.
3rd Awesome Point: the Why
Fish sauce stands in for salt in many East Asian cuisines, but it is so much more than just salt. Fish sauce is a complex and nuanced umami packed salt delivery system. It offers depth, roundness, nuttiness and sweetness. It’s salt times 100. It can be eaten straight up in Thai dipping sauces or when cooked in a curry the sharp edges and the fish notes simmer away leaving behind a complex umami richness.
Just Awesome: Here is a list of fish sauces following accomplishments
Restored Brussel Sprouts good name and returned its status to deliciousness and sparked a Brussel sprout craze. Search out David Chang’s Momofuku recipe for Roasted Brussel Sprouts with Fish Sauce Vinaigrette.
Ragu Bolognese is a long stewed rich complex meaty sauce; adding a dash of fish sauce in the beginning cuts back on your cooking time but keeps the complexity.
Coffee? Well the salty brine of fish sauce cuts back and smooths out the bitterness of the coffee. You don’t want fishy coffee, but a toothpick with one end soaked in fish sauce and then placed in the coffee is worth a try.
And finally, fish sauce is not the only fish sauce in the world. Southern Italy has Colatura a which is also little salted anchovies packed in barrels held over the summer and drained in the fall. You can squirt this delicious stuff on your pizza margherita. Worcestershire could get an honorable mention in the fish sauce category as it owes a lot to the little anchovies. Anywhere you use Worcestershire you can use fish sauce. On your steak, on a super complex Caesar Salad, etc
So, in short Fish Sauce is Awesome!