What exactly is Vietnamese Fish Sauce?

Fish sauce. Just the mention this condiment causes fear in the minds of many. It’s a sour and fishy-flavored concentrated liquid that even Southeast Asian cooks are aware of and beware of. Undoubtedly, spilling a bottle will leave an quite bad smell that will last for a long time.

As with many Asian food items in America the potent taste powerhouse is plagued by the undeserved reputation that comes with “fishiness.” Just imagine the possibility of it being called “magical umami liquid gold,” because that’s the name it has is used to describe the majority of Southeast Asia!

We are fortunate that American chefs at home and experts in the culinary field are beginning to recognize the amazing flavor-enhancing properties that fish sauce has to offer. Chefs from Spanish, Mexican and American restaurants have explored fish sauce for its umami-enhancing properties. From potatas bravas to anything as well as sauce verde salsa, poblano, barbeque and perhaps Bloody Mary cocktails the power of fish sauce to alter flavor is difficult to resist for anyone who is knowledgeable.

For recipes with examples where fish sauce is used in a prominent way you can check out my recipe to make egg roll and the noodle bowl similar to Bun Thit Nuong.

What is the fish sauce composed from?

In the purest sense modern fish sauce is comprised in Anchovies as well as sea salt as the sole ingredients. Traditionally, anchovies get encased in sea salt, then stored in barrels, in which they ferment. Natural bacteria breaks down the fish through amazing chemical alchemy (aka fermentation) which transforms it into a funky briny liquid. It could take months or up to 2 years to fully ferment. Raw varieties are made at room temperature and preserve all the essential enzymes, as well as the omega-3 acids..

The way it is with the mass production of products, manufacturers tend to depart from their formula as they seek to lower costs. Products of lower quality include more fillers, or other enhancements such as sugar, water, or other flavors. The only exception vegetarian alternatives, which completely eliminates anchovies. Here’s a list well-known brand names and the ingredients they contain:

  • Red Boat Premium Fish Sauce Anchovies sea salt
  • High-end Anchovy Gold Fish Sauce Anchovies and sea salt
  • “Flying Lion” Vietnamese-Style Fish Sauce Anchovy extract salt, water and fructose, as well as hydrolysed vegetable protein
  • Three Crabs Fish Brand Anchovy extract salt, water as well as fructose and hydrolysed vegetable protein
  • Thai Food Sauce Fish Salt, anchovy extract sugar
  • Vegan Fysh Sauce Organic seaweed, pineapple extract rice wine, vinegar and various other ingredients
  • Golden Boy’s Fish Sauce Anchovies, sugar, salt
  • The BLiS Fish Aged Barrel Sauce Fresh black anchovy sea salt

Where and how is where and how is the use of fish sauce?

Although it was first developed in China around 2300 years ago The fish sauce travelled south before evolving to become increasingly popular in the southeast Asian countries. There are various versions available that are available in Indonesia, Burma, Cambodia, The Philippines, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. It’s just as crucial for Vietnamese and Thai food like soy sauce to the northern neighboring China, Japan and Korea. It’s similar to salt that is used within the American kitchen. If it’s used straight out of the bottle to cook or combined with other ingredients to create various sauces for dipping the way it is used varies in different nations.

If you’ve ever had the pad Thai, Pho, egg rolls, Bun Bo Hue or vermicelli noodles most likely, you’ve experienced fish sauce in one way or another. Let’s explore the different ways it can be used in various dishes.

“Fish Sauce Factory” by Jason. Tabarias is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/?ref=openverse.

Vietnamese fish sauce: nuoc mam

In the Viet Nam Culture Foundation, Tran Ngoc Them wrotethat “For Vietnamese people, a meal without fish sauce is considered incomplete.” It is so common in Vietnamese food that you’ll discover a tiny bottles of it at every table, in lieu the table salt. Nuoc Mam which is also known as nuoc mam in Vietnamese can be described as the essential ingredient in Vietnamese the cuisine. It is used in cooking both as the primary source of salt, and also as a dip spice, a few recipes that aren’t made with it.

Here are some popular Vietnamese dishes that use fish sauce as the primary ingredient:

  • Vietnamese dipping sauce (Nuoc Cham recipe)
  • Vietnamese chops of pork
  • Vietnamese pork and summer rolls made of shrimp
  • Chicken wings that have been grilled

Nuoc Cham

Hue, the central Vietnam region, also known by the name of Hue is known for having one of the most innovative uses for nuoc mam. Since it was once the capital city of the royals in the nation, Hue is home to a long culinary tradition of intricate food items that require a lot of labor that stand out in comparison to other areas. Hue is home to 30 varieties of nuoc cham the dipping sauce made from nuoc mam.

Nuoc Cham can be described as the Swiss blade of Vietnamese sauces. In mixing nuoc mam, the sugar, and acids (typically lime) it accomplishes the work of salting as well as cutting through the fried food. In various bundishes (vermicelli rice noodles) it functions as a vinaigrette dressing. For the cha gio (egg rolls) and goi cuon (spring rolls) It’s a sweet sauce for dipping.

It’s no secret the fact that you can find fish sauce present in almost any Vietnamese dish. It’s a poetic symbol of Vietnamese identity. Writer Them proposes that because rice is the symbol of earth, nuoc mam represents the water that is composed from two ” gifts of the sea” that are anchovies and salt. For Vietnamese people nuoc mam is equally vital as water in the balance of nature.

My mom’s kitchen and other chefs kitchens

My mom’s kitchen was a mess she would mix the fish sauce into pasta sauces to provide an umami-like kick, a technique that well-known chefs would later learn about. If you think this is an act of sacreligiousness or genius, it is hard to argue about the health benefits of decreasing 10 to 25% in sodium chloride without losing the perceived saltiness and umami! For those who are watching their salt intake Food & Wine recommends making use of the fish sauce to serve as a sodium-free neutralizer to reduce salt.

What is the best fish sauce?

Inside a Phu Quoc fish sauce factory

The most delicious fish sauce available in Vietnam and possibly the world, is created by the fishermen of Phu Quoc Island, off the coast of Vietnam. Anchovies caught in the archipelago of 22 islands are salted, then fermented in large wooden vessels for up to a year. The sauce is so sought-after that it is referred to as the “Phu Quoc” name can only be used to describe sauce that is actually produced by the islands, in accordance with the Protected Designation of Origin status given to it by European Union.

The following brands make use of Phu Quoc fish exclusively:

  • Phu Quoc
  • Red Boat 40 degrees North
  • Flying Lion

The flavor of this sauce can be due to the abundance of water of Phu Quoc, which team with plankton, the most popular food item of anchovies. There are a lot of imitations. Some brands dilute the sauce by adding seawater. The best quality brands are listed as 43g/L. The amount decreases as the sauce is further reduced with seawater (range between 40, 30, 20, and lastly 15g/L). Then, on Phu Quoc, the first run, which is produced at the time the vats are cleaned, is considered to be to be the most delicious.

Fish sauce substitutes

I’ve tried some delicious tasting alternatives to fish sauce in vegetarian Vietnamese restaurants, each with its unique approach to this. Be aware that substitutes for fish sauce are intended to be substitutes for the real thing. However, there is no substitute in one way for the original sauce made of anchovies even if they’re tasty in their own right.

If you’re vegetarian, vegan, or simply prefer some other ingredient, I’ve witnessed other people substitute fish sauce for these:

  • Soy sauce
  • Mixing hoisin with miso sauce and mixing it
  • Worchestshire Sauce
  • Vegetarian “fish” sauce

How is the fish sauce made?

Making your own fish sauce is a fantastic method of ensuring that you know precisely what’s inside, but in terms of time and effort I’m not convinced it’s is worth the effort for the majority of people. You can also avoid the preservatives and additives used in the many brands available off the shelf. But it’s not for those with weak stomachs. It has a strong smell however, once it’s fermented it has the same punch of flavor like the fish sauce that is manufactured.

The recipe that follows, courtesy of dietetic expert Anne Guillot, takes 15 minutes of preparation time and creates one bottle. It offers a glimpse of what you can do with it, if you’re too ambitious.


  • A few small anchovies (whole) Small anchovies (whole) 1.5 lbs.
  • Sea salt – 3 tablespoons
  • 2 cups of water
  • Garlic two cloves (mashed)
  • Bay leaves (crumbled) 2
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns

See more: Mo Hanh recipe


Mix the fish with salt and place it in mason jars. Place the fish in the jar, then add the other ingredients. You can add more water, if necessary, to fully fill the jar with the fish. Allow one inch under the lid of the jar, then cover it tightly and let it keep at ambient temperature for three days. After that, you can transfer the jar to the refrigerator. After a few weeks you can remove it from the fridge and separate it. The liquid that you have strained into a bottle, and then refrigerate the fish sauce again. After 6-8 years, your sauce should be at its peak and will look clear and black.

Also, be aware that the smell and the sight of the process of fermentation can be quite unpleasant for certain people. When using it, just one or two tablespoons is enough. It is possible to add more salt , since the homemade fish sauce you make isn’t as salty as the store-brand brands.

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