Don’t Fear the Fish Sauce

I am continually amazed at how fearful salty fermented fish squeezings can make people.

Every time I have taught a class in Thai cooking (which has been many times over the past five years or so), I have had one or two people hang towards the back of the room, and when I launch into my spiel about how necessary fish sauce is to getting that correct “Thai flavor” in their cooking, one of them puts up a tentative hand, and in a quavery voice asks, “Do you -have- to use fish sauce? I mean, is it -really- necessary?”

I try very hard not to sigh or bark back at them, “What did I just get through telling you? Weren’t you listening?”

Instead, I very patiently go over why fish sauce is necessary in the making of Thai food, and how even some Thai vegetarians even use it, but that if it really bothers you or if you are allergic to fish you can use Thai soy sauce, but be aware that your dishes will not taste like the ones you eat out in Thai restaurants, because you will be lacking a crucial ingredient.

This usually causes the fearful ones to settle down until I start doing cooking demonstrations and pour a liberal amount of fish sauce into a hot wok. When the scent of boiling fish hits them in a cloud of steam, the fearful ones usually step back and snivel, their faces screwed up into expressions of disgust and mistrust.

I usually resort to humor at that point, and tell folks that when I cook Thai food for the first time for guests, I always make up a pretext to send them out of the kitchen when it comes time to whip out the fish sauce and throw it in the wok. For instance, I always send my Mom out to the porch for a last cigarrette before dinner is ready. Any number of friends have been sent out on various pretexts: go set the table, feed the dog, look at the garden, oh, wow, there is a deer in the yard, go look–you name it, I have used it.

But that is only for the squeamish and uninitiated, and that was only done years and years ago when I was less confident. These days, my friends and family are old pros and they know, that no matter what smells may issue forth at intervals from my stove, the end result is always divinely edible, so they wait it out in anticipation.

Some of them, like me, have learned to salivate when they smell the fish sauce spashed against a hot wok.

Because here is the deal: fish sauce grows on you. It may not smell to conventional Western tastes, what one would call good, but after a while, it doesn’t smell bad, either. And then, as you cook with it more and more, and your palate and nose begin to associate the smell of fish sauce with the delicious results of pad thai, green curry or tom kha gai, you begin to actually like the smell of it. It becomes comforting, homey and appetizing.

Once you start making dipping sauces out of it by combining it with sugar, lime juice and chiles, it starts to smell and taste downright good in its own right.

At that point, my friend, you will know that you have learned to love that which you once feared. And that is a good place to be.

Because fish sauce can then become a secret ingredient in your kitchen arsenal. Of course you will use it in Thai food and Vietnamese food, because you can’t make the stuff without it. But after you learn what beautiful, mysterious things it can do to food, you will find yourself bringing it out to use in dishes that never saw southeast Asia, except maybe in a travel brochure.

I have used it to pick up a few Italian sauces that tasted somehow flat. This sounds disgusting and surprising, until you take into account that fish sauce is made from salted, fermented anchovies–a wee fish that is used often to round out the flavors in Italian foods. I have added it to vegetable soups that lacked a savory depth, probably because I didn’t use a good soup bone in making them.

I have not gone so far as to add it to any desserts or breads, but you never know. I once added duck sauce to a batch of cookies, and invented a new recipe that people adore, so watch out.

Fish sauce may well appear in a tart someday.

But, for now, I tend to prefer to use fish sauce for its intended purpose, which is to make Thai food addictively, splendiferously, delectable.

This Saturday, I made a little Thai/Chinese supper for the friends; I was supposed to make steamed buns, but after the ordeal of nearly breaking my nose by closing the hatchback of our car in it (I knocked myself out for a few seconds–it was quite exciting–I scared Zak to death and irritated myself because after that, I was not only hobbling with a very bruised foot, I had a cut and a bruise on the bridge of my nose), I could not face playing with bun dough.

But, I found when I awoke on the dirty floor of our garage, with blood coming out of my nose and Zak frantically shaking me, was that I had a sudden craving for nam sod.

Nam sod is a wonderful Thai salad that is supposed to be made out of minced or ground pork. It is also supposed to have only some slivers of red onion, some herbs and minced ginger and chiles in it, and is garnished with crushed peanuts. The dressing is fish sauce and lime juice, though I have had it with sugar added to it, though I prefer the flavor without the sweetness.

My version, however, is made with hand minced chicken breast, julienned snow peas and carrots in addition to the red onion, lots of finely minced ginger, garlic and chiles, and has lots of herbs and sprouts to garnish it. I also discovered on Saturday night that really sweet, ripe cherry tomatoes are absolutely to die for as a garnish.

It tastes good the way I make it, even if it is so different from the original recipe that I shouldn’t even call it nam sod. But I wouldn’t know what else to call it, so there we are.

Besides, I patterned mine off of the nam sod they had on the menu at Siam Square in Providence, Rhode Island, which to this day, is still my favorite Thai restaurant anywhere, so there is precident for some of my unorthodox presentation. They, too, used minced chicken, which I know they minced by hand, because every time I ordered it, I could hear the chef pounding away at the chicken with two cleavers to mince it up finely and quickly. It wasn’t until I was well and truly addicted to it that I found out that it is supposed to be made of pork. When I tried it with pork, I didn’t like it, so, here’s the deal–you come to my house, I make nam sod–it is made with minced up chicken, and that is the way it is.

The slivers of red onion–that is orthodox nam sod. The slivers of snow peas and baby carrots–that is classic Barbara. The cilantro (and sometimes mint, when I have it) is traditional; the Thai basil and lime peel are my own innovations. The lightly crushed peanuts belong there; the tomatoes came about because they are in season, and shimmer like little gems when cut in half and sprinkled along the dish.

They also taste fantastic.

Edible flowers such as nasturtium blossoms are not a necessity to the dish, but they sure do look pretty. Lettuce in some form, however, is required. I like to use a salad mix with as many different colors, textures and flavors of greens as possible. As shown to the left, I have a mixture of leaf lettuces with romaine, radiccio and sunflower sprouts in the serving platter. I edged the platter with lime wedges so diners can snag a wedge and add more lime to the flavor mixture as they like.

I realized as we were eating the nam sod tonight, that this is yet another recipe that I learned at the behest of a friend, who upon visiting Providence while I was in culinary school, tried it at Siam Square and fell in love with it. In order to ensure that she would get to eat it again, she entreated me to learn how to make it, so I ordered it a few times, looked up some recipes and then started experimenting in the kitchen. Eventually, I came up with the version that I make to this day, and she said she liked it better than the one she had at the restaurant.

At any rate, this is a very simple dish, and it can be dressed up or down with as many garnishes as you like. I loved the serrano chiles and cherry tomatoes in this version, and the radish sprouts really added a nice cooling zing to the moderately spicy dish.

You can also make it as hot and spicy as you like, simply by adding more Thai chiles or red curry paste to the dish. Or, you can add less.

One thing you absolutely must not skimp on is the fish sauce. You must use a lot of it. And use good fish sauce. I prefer Golden Boy brand–you can recognize it by the little laughing Buddha-bellied baby boy on the label. He is a fat, happy little guy, holding a bottle of fish sauce in one hand and giving a thumb-up sign with the other while grinning like a big ole ‘possum. You can’t miss him. At any rate, that is one of the best fish sauces on the market–it has a very light flavor, and is tangy and salty without being overpoweringly so.

Nam Sod

Ingredients:

1 1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breast
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons peanut oil
5 cloves garlic, minced finely
1 1/2″ cube fresh ginger, peeled and minced finely
1-8 Thai chiles, minced finely
1 tablespoon Thai red curry paste
1 tablespoon cilantro stems and roots, washed well and minced finely
1 teaspoon freshly ground white peppercorns
fish sauce, to taste (about 2 tablespoons or so)
1 cup julienned slices carrot
1 cup julienned slices red onion
1 cup julienned slices snow peas (I cut them on the diagonal)
1 cup packed Thai basil leaves
1/4 cup mint leaves (optional)
zest of two limes, in thin strips
juice of two limes
1/2 cup lightly crushed peanuts
5 cups mixed greens, torn into bite sized pieces and laid on a serving platter
1 cup cilantro sprigs, rinsed and dried
3 red ripe serrano chiles, sliced on the diagonal (optional)
1 cup cherry tomato halves (optional)
1 cup radish sprouts (optional)
lime wedges for serving
Hot steamed jasmine rice for serving

Method:

Trim all membranes and most of the fat from the boneless skinless chicken breasts and remove all tendons. Cut the meat into a rough dice, then mince by hand. It should be unevenly done, with some larger pieces and some much finer–this is why it is easiest to do this by hand. Using a food processor or buying ground chicken results in a texture which is too uniform. (In order to see an example of of mincing chicken with two cleavers, there is a reference photograph in my post about minced chicken in lettuce cups.)

Mix chicken in a bowl with fish sauce and cornstarch and set aside in a bowl while prepping the vegetables and garnishes

Heat wok until smoking, add oil. When it is very hot, add minced garlic, ginger, chiles, curry paste, cilantro, and peppercorns and stir fry until very fragrant–about one minute. Add chicken all at once and stir fry, chopping at the chicken with the wok shovel to get it to stop sticking together. When chicken is half done (when roughly half of it is white and half is transluescent pink), add fish sauce.

When chicken is mostly done, add carrots and stir fry about thirty seconds, then add onions and stir fry until chicken is done. Add snow peas, herbs, lime zest and the juice of two limes, and continue stir frying until the herbs begin to wilt–about thirty or forty seconds.

Add half of the peanuts and stir to combine.

Pour contents of wok onto serving platter and mound decoratively. Scatter cilantro sprigs around and over mound.

Garnish with remaining peanuts and whatever garnishes you choose to use.

To serve, flatten a serving of rice on a plate, and scoop up nam sod, being certain to get some of the lettuce leaves, and put on top. Serve with a lettuce wedge on the side.

Notes:

If you do not have homemade curry paste in your freezer (I realize not everyone does), you can use Mae Ploy’s red curry paste. It comes in a resealable plastic tub that seems to last forever in the fridge.

You can make this as hot or as mild as you like depending on how many Thai chiles you use, and how much red curry paste you use. This batch was pretty mild–I actually used no Thai chiles whatsoever in making it and use fresh local serranos, which were mild even for serranos, and the curry paste.

Nasturtium blossoms make really stunning garnishes to top this recipe–especially since they taste nice and peppery, which goes well with the dish.

14 Comments

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  1. There are many kinds of vegetarians (Mangsavirat) in Thailand, some less strict than the other, but most don’t use Fish sauce in their cooking. They use soy sauce or vegetarian oyster sauce (it’s made from mushroom though – the oyster is only in the name!) for seasoning instead. However, in recent years vegetarianism became sort of a ‘fad’, and like any other fad, people just do whatever they want with it. Hence, the birth of all these weird concoctions of vegetarianism: “sometime-vegetarian”, “weekends-vegetarian”, “beef-vegetarian”, “pork-vegetarian” etc… Personally, I’d rather not use the term at all if you still want to eat meat products :-/, but that’s just me.

    Comment by BRo0Ke. — September 5, 2005 #

  2. You know what this post needs?

    MORE COWBELL!

    Comment by crazyquilt — September 5, 2005 #

  3. Hello, Brooke–

    I agree; I somewhat mispoke when I said that vegetarians in Thailand even use fish sauce. Some of them do. Some of them, as you noted, use vegetarian “oyster sauce” (which tastes very good) or Thai soy sauce.

    When I teach Thai vegetarian cookery, we use these alternatives in the class.

    But some of my Thai friends and aquaintances who avoid eating most meat, will still prefer to use fish sauce in cooking. They were not raised as vegetarians, so they are used to the fish sauce flavor.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — September 5, 2005 #

  4. Oh woe is upon the brow of mankind for those who were not in the chosen few, we noble chosen few, who stood stead in the face of the fish sauce. Behold those who threw themselves into the great gastronomical unknown, braving dishes with names we did not know, armed only with utensils from Kathay of old and steady hands. Eyes weary from the day and strong wills pushing forward, to propel us up the steps into the awaiting maelstrom of noodles and mushroom goodness. Laid waste by our hands was the rice cooker and its steamed grains of virgin goodness, laid low by the heaping masses of Nam Sod, garnished in its ill begotten bed with peanuts and little bits of unknown peppers of fire. Upon shields of colorful ceramic we met the invaders and they will rue the day they were ever created! Still, into that night, like a feeding frenzy of starved beasts we held fast as bowl upon bowl of steaming fungi and its evil accomplice Tofu were taken down like so much soup, yet unlike any soup it was for the power it had to cloud men’s minds with its succulent tastes and alluring bite. And then as suddenly as it began it was over, only the pains of battle hard fought and food eaten too much of lingered behind, leaving us to lust for a little more room to sate our hungers for food battles. But alas, the spoon did arise no more and lay upon bowl, fork did lay upon plate and hand upon bloated belly, while we few did stretch and moan in both pleasure and pain, for we took the Kitchen on High, but at a cost no greater then we were willing to pay and would pay again, in seconds and thirds, going hand in hand.

    Yes, as a matter of fact I did think it was pretty good ;)
    Xai Xai, Mei mei!

    Comment by Bryian — September 5, 2005 #

  5. Yes, yeah and verily, did the brave ones go forth and slay the great and splendid platter of fish sauce, as well as the great cauldron of hot and sour soup and the never ending bowl of Hunan spicy noodles.

    Which is good, because otherwise, we would be eating these things for months here in Chez Mei Mei.

    And as much as I adore these dishes, when you eat them every day for a week, they get a wee bit tiresome.

    I got some goat yesterday, Bry–so, sometime in the future, there is a batch of Chupacabra chili, if you are up for it. ;-)

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — September 5, 2005 #

  6. Bring it on!

    Let me know when and we will work out schedules :)

    Comment by Bryian — September 6, 2005 #

  7. Foodgoat uses fish sauce as the secret ingredient in his Hungarian goulash. I, of course, would happily use it in anything in lieu of salt.

    Comment by ladygoat — September 6, 2005 #

  8. Hey, Ladygoat!

    It is good stuff. I am not surprised that it goes well in goulash. It makes sense that it would, in a weird way.

    Salt is one dimensional, whereas fish sauce and its distant relative, soy sauce, add flavors and aromas beyond saltiness.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — September 6, 2005 #

  9. Now I’m all curious about the duck sauce in the cookies … *g*

    Comment by Laura — September 10, 2005 #

  10. Look for a post and a recipe for them soon, then.

    I do requests, as you see….

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — September 12, 2005 #

  11. Can I throw on a comment (very very late) here? This blog seems to be sent up so that Barbara should I hope read and notice this. I have read up on fish and oyster sauce pretty throughly, because a) I love Asian food and b) I don’t always do well eating it because I’m terribly allergic to shellfish. So I have to be quite careful about ingredients. I’ve never seen this addressed – in recipes that call for oyster sauce, would the vegetarian version serve best as a substition for me? How much would the flavor miss if I skipped out on it entirely?

    Comment by e^2 — February 17, 2006 #

  12. Yes, the vegetarian version will be quite fine for you. There are versions based on mushroom extract that are quite flavorful in a similar way to the regular oyster sauce.

    I am glad you stopped by to ask–and I hope you come by again. And you can comment on any post and I will see it–but if you have a question about something and it is off topic–just go to the most recent post and ask anyway. Or, email me. I have folks email me with questions all the time.

    I am glad that I could help

    But anyway, the reason a mushroom-based “oyster” sauce would work just as well for you is because both mushrooms and shellfish are filled with glutamates, which give the flavor, “umami” which is a savory, sort of meaty flavor. It boosts the other flavors in a dish, and since both oysters and mushrooms are filled with glutamates, they both fulfill a similar function in a sauce based upon their extractives.

    Comment by Barbara — February 17, 2006 #

  13. Ah, that’s good to know. Thank you so much. (Wow, my post had a lot of typos in it. I’m glad you answered even though I failed on the first impression.)

    I love umami ingredients and never use them sparingly! I’ve always been worried about trying dishes that called for things like oyster sauce or shrimp paste or what have you because I know well that they are in there for a good reason.

    But I figured, just like losing out on eating shrimp, I would just lose out on a flavor component of the dish. That’s why I was glad when I read about the vegetarian version of the sauce.

    I have to be very careful about these things; I’m most experienced with Japanese cooking, and if you didn’t have to pay attention like I do, you might be surprised what all is in some of their “fish” cakes.

    I don’t know if this is something that should be addressed separately and perhaps you’d email me or even be extra wonderful and post, but do you have any tips on proper substitions for other shellfish or shellfish-based ingredients? I would be ever so grateful!

    Comment by e^2 — February 18, 2006 #

  14. I love Thai food and use fish sauce often at home but have never thought to use it in any other types of cuisine. I’m now looking forward to adding it as a secret ingredient next time I made an Italian tomato sauce!

    Comment by Corina — July 2, 2011 #

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