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.
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.
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