Ingredient Spotlight: Fish Sauce

Making incredible Vietnamese food at home requires an umami kick from fish sauce. Not sure which one to buy? Read on for tips on picking out the most flavorful fish sauce for your next Vietnamese home cooked meal.

Red Boat Fish Sauce laid on a towel.
Emma Christensen

This post is part of our Summer Cookbook Club series for June 2020 featuring Andrea Nguyen’s book, Vietnamese Food Any Day.

What Is Fish Sauce?

Believe it or not, fish sauce is as nuanced as wine—each brand or bottle can have its own characteristics, and some are better than others.

Fish sauce is quite simply: fish and salt, more specifically anchovy. A general rule of thumb with cooking is that when something has few ingredients, quality counts for even more. With only two components in this sauce, the quality of both the fish and the salt is paramount.

How to Pick a Good Fish Sauce

A good fish sauce, according to Andrea Nguyen, author of six cookbooks focused on Asian cuisine, should have depth and shouldn’t be flat. “You’re looking for way more than salty water here,” she says. “Good fish sauce has complexity to it.” With such a strong, pungent flavor, most people blend fish sauce with something else like lime, sugar, or oyster sauce, but it can be used solo.

Keep in mind, fish sauce is a transformative ingredient that delivers a powerful umami note, generally described as a rich, savory depth, to any dish. You may not recognize the taste of fish sauce in a recipe, but its addition is probably the reason why you love it.

“Umami is like the beautiful ends of a roast or a steak that you just really want to chew on,” Andrea says. “Fish sauce delivers that undertone and grounds a dish, gives it depth that makes you go, ‘yeah that’s really good’ and you don’t know it. It adds this savory note that just makes food taste extra good.”

Three Fish Sauces to Try

If you’re looking to expand your fish sauce repertoire, it would be a good idea to start with some of Andrea’s favorites.

  • Son Fish Sauce: Some of the best sauce Andrea has tasted. You can read it about it in depth on her website
  • Red Boat: An artisanal variety, barrel aged and made from wild caught black anchovy.
  • Three Crabs: A little on the salty side, but according to Andrea, it’s a perennial favorite.

To say one ingredient defines a cuisine would be a gross oversimplification—especially when considering the exploratory and varied dishes that emerge from the southeast Asian country of Vietnam—but you have to start somewhere, and fish sauce is an essential ingredient worth exploring.

How to Use Fish Sauce

Fish sauce is a seasoning ingredient typically used in sauces, dips, and marinades. You only need a little to add big umami flavor. Generally less than a tablespoon is needed.

Try Fish Sauce in These Recipes!

If you’re looking for more ways to use fish sauce in your cooking, check out Andrea Nguyen’s book, Vietnamese Food Any Day. Her book is a wonderful jumping-off point for those new to Vietnamese cooking.