Fishing for Fish Sauce

Back when I wrote my post about the Thai Pesto Noodles I put together in a successful experiment, one reader commented that I never really explained much about fish sauce, nor mentioned which brand or brands I used at home. And while I did link to a very old post of mine, an exhortation to my readers on the glories of fish sauce, (Don’t Fear The Fish Sauce), that post really didn’t talk about which brands of that umami-laden sauce i used in my own kitchen, or the qualities that I found admirable in a fish sauce.

So, now I am writing just such a post.

I’ve been cooking Thai food for about seventeen or eighteen years now. (Good grief, it really has been that long….dang!) And, in the beginning, when I made my first, very tentative explorations of Thai cuisine, guided by some inadequate cookbooks and a very strong taste memory from the restaurants in Miami that Zak and his family frequented, I pretty much used whatever fish sauce I could get my neophyte’s grubby paws on.

And while I made pretty good Thai food back then, it cannot hold a candle to the dishes I make now; this is in part, because I make my own curry pastes, but it is also because the quality of my ingredients has risen. Many more brands of Thai ingredients are available now than there were nearly twenty years ago, and they are more widely available. Thanks to the Internet, which I lacked back in the day, I can even get fresh lime leaves, galangal, chilies and lemongrass shipped to my doorstep, along with any brand of fish sauce I should care to use.

So, what brands of fish sauce do I prefer, and why?

My number one, all-time favorite all-purpose Thai fish sauce is Golden Boy, which I use for everything. I use it cooked in curries, stir fries and raw in dipping sauces and dressings, and it is always delicious. If you look at the illustration above, you can see that it is a lovely amber color, very clear and light. It also has the freshest, least objectionably “fishy” odor of any fish sauce available in the US, which I find is very helpful when I am teaching Thai cooking to people who have never come across fish sauce as an ingredient before. Don’t get me wrong–Golden Boy, when drizzled into a very hot wok still sends forth a billowing cloud of fish-scented steam, but it isn’t particularly bad. In fact, I think it smells rather good, and most of my dinner guests and family agree.

It also has a very balanced flavor, strong on the umami, not too salty, with a slightly sweet finish. In my experience, Golden Boy is the least salty tasting fish sauce available in the US. There is absolutely no hint of bitterness to it, though I have read reviews which have said so. I have never detected it, and I trust myself to have a pretty darned good sense of taste.

Golden Boy is pretty easily available, at least on the East Coast and in the Midwest, though I have heard that it isn’t as easy to find on the West Coast. However, there are many online grocery stores that stock it, including my personal favorite, Import Food.
Look for the cute little grinning baby boy on the label, cradling a bottle of fish sauce on his lap with one hand and making a thumbs-up sign with his other.

Oh, one more thing–it is a beast to unseal. The plastic shrink seal on the lid is simple, you just cut that like you do any other shrink-plastic seal. It is the seal under the lid that gives some folks fits. It is a solid plastic raised disc that you take a sharp paring knife to, sawing back and forth on it until the disc flies off and you are left with a nice, smooth, small hole in the bottle lid with a fold-down, locking cap to keep the precious stuff from evaporating. (It also keeps any wayward cats who may wander your home from jumping up on the counter and knocking the bottle to the floor where it can spill and they can imbibe until they are soused on fermented fish squeezings.)

I also use Squid Brand which has a stronger, but still pleasant fish flavor, and which is a tiny bit darker in color than Golden Boy. I prefer to use it cooked in curries and soups and some very spicy stir-fried dishes, but I won’t use it raw in dipping sauces and dressings. It is a little more salty than Golden Boy and the more pronounced fish flavor, while it is great in curries, is a little overpowering when used raw.

You can see the true color of Squid Brand by looking at the lightest bit of the bottle in the photograph, just above the label. It is slightly reddish and more of a dark honey color than the more golden amber color of Golden Boy. I suspect it is not aged as long as Golden Boy, but I don’t know that for certain. What I do know, is that squid is not used in making the sauce, any more than babies go into Golden Boy. They both are made with anchovy extract, salt and sugar, though water is listed as the first ingredient in Squid Brand, which makes me think that my assumption that it is not fermented as long as my favorite brand might just be correct.

It is easy to recognize Squid Brand–it not only has a squid right on the green and white label, it also has a cute squid embossed right into the glass of the bottle.

It also opens quite easily, unlike Golden Boy, which requires a steady strong hand and a bit of cutlery and patience. You just tear off the shrink plastic seal and pop the top up and there you are! It also seals up wonderfully well–better than Golden Boy, in fact, such that I might possibly feel safe enough transporting an already opened bottle of it across town in my car.

I doubt it, though. Having once gotten a bit of fish sauce spilled into my first car, I can attest that the smell, which may not be bad in the bottle, is really bad in car upholstery, especially in the summer.

And it doesn’t really ever come out. It fades over time, and you will forget about it, until the next summer, when on the first ninety-five degree day, you open your car door to be attacked and overwhelmed by the unwelcome odor of long dead and unburied wee fishies. (This is why I always tell people that if they want to cook Thai at someone else’s house and they need to take fish sauce, take a new, sealed up bottle and then leave it there. If you can’t do that, I advocate sealing the bottle with duct tape, then wrapping it in plastic, then sealing it up in a big ziplock bag. Even then, I suggest praying to the Kitchen God the entire time you drive, lest any bizarre and unnatural event occur which would release the thrice-sealed fish sauce into your unsuspecting car seats.)

Now, there is a fish sauce I have not tried which I am going to try and find the next time I go to Columbus.

I want to try Tra Chang Golden Label Brand. It is highly rated by Import Food, and so I am curious to see if it is as good as they say, or if I will stick with my Golden Boy.

Now, what brands do I suggest you not use?

Well, in general, let me say this: if it comes in a plastic bottle don’t buy it.

I have tasted fish sauce bottled in plastic that tasted like, well, fishy plastic.

Ick.

Need I say more about that?

Thai Kitchen brand fish sauce, which you can find in many supermarkets, is not one I would recommend. For one thing, it is very expensive for the tiny bottle, and for another, it has a very salty flavor and a very strong fishy smell. I am not certain it is naturally fermented, but it is certainly not worth the amount of money you pay for it in your usual supermarket. It is much better to order a good brand from online or make the effort to shop in an Asian market for your Thai ingredients than to use the overpriced produces from Thai Kitchen. (This goes for everything they make, by the way–their coconut milk is always at least fifty to ninety cents more per can than the better tasting Chaokoh and Mae Ploy I get at the Asian market.)

Thai Kitchen was the very first fish sauce I used, in large part, because it was the only one I could get in West Virginia way back in the dark days before the Internet could bring anything to your doorstep via mail order. And I have to say, while it did make my food taste sort of Thai, it also made it taste very salty, and that was not good. Thai food is about balance in flavor and too salty does not a balanced dish make.

Also, back in the day, I used to use Three Crabs Brand fish sauce, but stopped using it when I discovered Golden Boy. It is okay, but instead of being made with just anchovy extract, salt and sugar like the other brands it also has water, fructose and hydrolyzed wheat protein in it. I suspect that this accounts for the rather odd, slightly too sweet flavor it has which I now find off-putting.

However, I will say that a lot of people love Three Crabs Brand and swear by it, so if you want, try it and see if you like it. To my taste, it is both too salty and too sweet, without enough of the savory, meaty, delicious and addictive umami kick from the fish that is most of the point of fish sauce in the first place.

So there is my little treatise on which brands of fish sauce I prefer to use in my kitchen. They are all Thai–and I have to admit I use them not only in Thai food, but also in my Vietnamese dishes, always to delicious effect.

And, like many other cooks, I have found that sometimes fish sauce can give a lift to dishes from all over the world by giving them a good jolt of umami along with a dash of salt. Soups stews and especially Italian pasta sauces can really benefit from a little shake of fish sauce at some point in the cooking process.

I have yet to try using fish sauce in a dessert, though it may happen some day.

You never know.

18 Comments

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  1. Thanks for the informative post. My bottle of fish sauce is nearly empty, and I’d read several good reviews about Three Crabs brand recently. I do remember seeing Golden Boy at my local Vietnamese market recently, so think I’ll go with your suggestion next time I stock up.

    Comment by De in D.C. — October 29, 2009 #

  2. I use Golden Boy almost exclusively. It used to be fairly easy to find out here in the west, but has become harder in past years for some reason. Tra Chang is also very good – and comparable in taste to Golden Boy – but I do prefer Golden Boy. I tend to stick with these two Thai brands. People who cook Vietnamese swear by 3 Crabs but I, like you, don’t like it as much.

    I love the taste and smell of fish sauce, although it is an acquired taste. I use it a lot. I even added to some lamb stew three weeks ago for its umami-ness.

    Comment by Diane — October 30, 2009 #

  3. Oh – and funny thing – some fancy spice outlets (no names to protect the not-so-innocent) sell what they call “garum” for almost $20 for a bottle 1/3 the size of these. It’s just fish sauce. Fancy Italian fish sauce, but fish sauce nonetheless. And no doubt good, but can’t be better than Golden Boy.

    The Romans used to cook a lot with fish sauce. It was a huge trading commodity throughout the empire. But when Rome fell, “garum” as it was known went out of favor in the west.

    Comment by Diane — October 30, 2009 #

  4. I think most savory dishes can be improved with a little fish sauce. I use Golden Boy exclusively. While I have seen Squid in the stores I have never tried that but will pick up a bottle the next time I go shopping. Have also seen written if a recipe calls for anchovies and you don’t have it, substitute a bit of fish sauce. Thanks Barbara – great explanation of this wonder elixir.

    Comment by Maureen — October 30, 2009 #

  5. So glad you did this post. I’ve built my collection of Asian pantry staples from your suggestions but did notice the absence of a treatise on fish sauce. Problem solved.

    I, too, started with Thai Kitchen. A random grab landed Squid in my cart when I was last in the Asian market. I’ll certainly look for Golden Boy on my next trip.

    Thanks.

    Comment by Stephanie — October 30, 2009 #

  6. Thanks for your post. I live in India, where I don’t easily find the brands you mention. I recently bought a bottle of Tiparos brand fish sauce. Have you ever tried it? What do you think about it? Should I be looking for a different brand next time?
    Thanks again! :)

    Comment by Sprite — October 31, 2009 #

  7. Where do you buy the Golden Boy in Columbus? I haven’t been able to find it!

    I was once part of a fish-sauce-car-explosion. IT IS VERY VERY BAD. I agree about just buying a new, sealed bottle anytime you want to transport it :)

    Comment by Josie — October 31, 2009 #

  8. Sprite–I know a lot of people like Tiparos; I only tasted it in the culinary school kitchen where it was used. It has a good flavor, as I recall, but is a bit saltier than I prefer. But that just means you have to be a little careful with it!

    Josie–I get it at the Bangkok Market at 3277 Refugee Road.

    They have -everything- you need to cook Thai food, including fresh galangal, chilies, lime leaves, lemon grass, banana flowers, coconuts, Thai basil, holy basil and a number of other herbs.

    Comment by Barbara — October 31, 2009 #

  9. Well shucks. The international section of my neighborhood grocery store only has two brands: Thai kitchen and something in a plastic bottle.

    I’ll be on the lookout for a specialty Asian grocery store.

    Comment by Neohippie — October 31, 2009 #

  10. A coworker and I were talking about fish products today. I live in Thailand, where Squid brand is totally ubiquitous, but there’s a local fish sauce called budu as well. It’s a scary grayish-brown color, unlike the lovely translucent nam plaa you discuss here. (I hear there’s a red version further south in Malaysia, too.)

    The flavor is… uh… well, it’s not as bad as pla raa from the northeast or prahok from Cambodia, but it’s interesting. People like to add some extra fish shreds and chillies and eat it with fresh vegetables, sort of like nam prik in other parts of Thailand or teuk prahok in Cambodia.

    That coworker has a close friend who manufactures it and a cousin who wrote a master’s thesis on potential industry development. If everything goes as planned, I’ll be making a little video on it.

    Anyone want a bottle? I hear it’s great with durian. ;)

    Comment by Maria P. — November 1, 2009 #

  11. I cannot find Golden Boy in my neck of Ohio (have tried repeatedly and am begging Josie to get some for me when she stops at the place you recommend in Cols) but I can tell you that I use Squid much the way you do and that my current favorite is Tra Chang–so I will be curious to hear what you think of it. Mind you I cannot compare to Golden Boy and I do hear it is the bomb. :) Oh and I stopped using 3 Crabs for those extra ingredients also….

    Comment by Laura — November 1, 2009 #

  12. How does fish sauce differ from / compare with worchestershire sauce?

    Comment by Bella — November 2, 2009 #

  13. I use Squid, partly because it’s cheap and easy to find, but also for the joy of having a large bottle labeled “Squid” on my counter top ;). You’re right that it’s best in cooked dishes. I’m going to sneak a little in my next batch of bbq sauce instead of soy or worcestershire. Thanks for the great piece.

    Comment by Dave — November 10, 2009 #

  14. Thanks for the article! I use Tra Chang at home also (on recommendation from Kasma: http://www.thaifoodandtravel.com/brands.html) and I’m curious too to hear what you think of it, so I hope you’ll do a followup article when you try it.

    By the way, other articles like this one on the different brands of one pantry staple you’ve tried (with recommendations) would be greatly appreciated. Maybe one on soy sauce? (If there isn’t one already in the archives.)

    Comment by Christian — November 18, 2009 #

  15. This is a great post on fish sauce! My family is from Thailand and I can only imagine how confusing it must be for someone who didn’t grow up using it. My mother uses Tiparos or Squid brand for cooking and Three Crabs for all other uses. I use Golden Boy for everything.

    Comment by jt — November 28, 2009 #

  16. I started with Squid brand at the recommendation of the waitress at my favorite Pho place and have been very happy with it. I’ll have to give Golden Boy a try next time I hit Vietnam Plaza in Carrolton Tx.
    One thing I’ve always wondered. Is it shelf stable after opening, like Worcestershire, or do you need to keep it in the fridge? I have just to be on the safe side.

    Comment by Maven — January 1, 2010 #

  17. My plastic bottle (ahem) actually advises against refrigeration. It says it will form crystals in the cold. Maybe fish crystals would work for that dessert, Barbara!

    Comment by MuddyG — March 31, 2010 #

  18. Hello there, I grew up with fish sauce and for one thing I can tell you is that the squid fish sauce is a Thai brand and that it is mainly used in cooking. I use the ‘three crabs’ brand fish sauce because it has more flavor to it, while the ‘squid’ and the ‘five fish’ brand fish sauce is mainly used for cooking (stew, braising, soup) for the saltiness. All are very inexpensive in your local Asian grocery markets.

    Comment by BaoBao — May 5, 2010 #

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