Fish Sauces Fish Sauce

Fish sauce is made by packing small fish and/or fish blood and innards into large barrels or jars layered with salt and setting the barrels out in the hot sun for around a year. The fish is digested by its own digestive enzymes and a clear salty liquid is eventually drained off and bottled. It is quite essential to several cuisines, particularly those of Southeast Asia today and of the Roman Empire.

Today, fish sauce is an important component of the "Pacific Rim Cuisine" rooted in Southern California, and is slowly entering the North American mainstream, particularly through innovative chefs who have found it a wonderful flavoring ingredient.

More on Seafood Products.





Roman Fish Sauces

Roman Coin Fish sauce was so important to the cuisine of the Roman Empire that almost all known Roman recipes call for it. People attempting to recreate dishes from those times often suggest substituting anchovy paste, an ingredient certain to ruin the dish entirely - then tell you it must be "an acquired taste".

Actually, quite suitable fish sauces made by methods very similar to those of ancient Rome are easily available in any market catering to a Southeast Asian community. Also, a fish sauce called Colatura di Alici is produced in Italy today, though it's more concentrated than the original Roman or Southeast Asian products.

Originally, a fish sauce called "garos" was brought from Greece to Rome. The Romans took to it and established factories to produce it in quantity. This became a major industry, particularly in Spain, just as it is in Thailand and Vietnam today. Some fish sauce was still being made in Spain during Moorish times. Whether there is any connection between the Greek fish sauce and Southeast Asian products can not be known, but the naturalness of its development from salt preserving fish requires no such technology transfer.

The basic difference between the Roman fish sauce and the current Thai product is the Thai practice of using only fresh whole anchovies. The Romans sometimes used other fish and enhanced the mix with extra fish blood and guts, or for higher grades may have used mostly the blood and guts. This would produce a faster fermenting product of higher concentration. Note that in southern Thailand a fish sauce called Tai pla is made entirely from mackerel entrails - and it is definitely stronger than regular Thai fish sauce.

The Romans had different grades of fish sauces and used several names for them. To the best of current knowledge this is how it shakes out:

  • Garum:   A high grade fish sauce made from the guts and blood of a single kind of fish, generally anchovies, mullet or mackerel. Subst: use a premium brand Thai fish sauce like Squid or Tra Chang.
  • Liquamen:   This name appears in the 4th century CE and detailed recipes have been found. Whole fish is used with added blood and guts. It is not definitively known if liquamen denotes a difference in formula or simply a change in name over time, but some think liquamen denotes the everyday sauce and Garum the costly extra-premium product. Subst: use an everyday Thai fish sauce like Tiparos.
  • Muria:   An ordinary quality sauce made from tuna guts, or a third quality sauce made from any fish or shellfish that had no other use at the time. In the Roman provence of Judaea certified kosher versions were made excluding all shellfish or fish without scales. Subst: Philippine Patis fish sauce.
  • Allec:   This was a paste formed in the bottom of the barrels, a byproduct of making fish sauce. Allec was not used for cooking but served as a condiment. Subst: try the Philippine sauces Bagoong Monamon or Bagoong Terong - if you dare - or Vietnamese Mam Nem for something a bit less pungent. We really don't know which is closer.
  • Oxygarum:   Garum mixed with vinegar, similar to Southeast Asian dipping sauces.
  • Meligarum:   Garum mixed with honey.
Colatura di Alici

Colatura This fish sauce is made in Italy today, but it's not known if by an ancient process or one just a few hundred years old. It does differ substantially from the original Roman product where the end objective was fish sauce.

The name means "filtration of anchovies" and it's a byproduct of salting anchovies in barrels. Made this way the quantity is small and it is highly concentrated and quite expensive. A price of about $7.50 an ounce makes it quite attractive to chefs at fancy restaurants, but that isn't to say it isn't worth it. Just a couple of drops per serving will do in any case.

Thai fish sauce is of similar strength as drawn from the barrels, but it is diluted to about 20% when bottled.   Photos © source.

Southeast Asian Clear Fish Sauce

Fish Sauces These sauces are heavily used in Thailand and Vietnam taking the place soy sauce holds in China and Japan. It is both a flavoring element and provides the salt for the dish it is included in. The great majority of Thai and Vietnamese recipes include at least some fish sauce.

This type of fish sauce is also important in the Philippines, but is less used in other countries of Southeast Asia. Fermented shrimp paste, fish paste and other similar condiments are more prevalent in those countries.

Subst: There is no truly satisfactory substitute for fish sauce. A fermented yellow bean sauce is about as close as you can get, and that would be suitable for strict vegetarians. Lacking that you would have to use plain salt but an important flavor element will be missing.

Thai fish sauce is now common in Southern California because of the many Asian communities here, but it's also being adopted into the famous "California cuisine" - expect it to spread. Here are the national names for it, as best I could find them, anyway.

  • California - nampla (easier to say than nuocmam)
  • Thailand - nam pla
  • Vietnam - nuoc mam
  • Philippines - patis
  • Cambodia - prahoc
  • Malaysia - budu
  • Myanmar (Burma) - ngan byar yay
  • Japan - shottsuru
  • China - yu lu

Fish sauce is made by layering salt and freshly caught anchovies in large barrels or crocks and setting the barrels out in the hot sun for about a year. The clear fish sauce is then drained through a tap at the bottom of the barrel, filtered and diluted with water to the desired strength, usually about 20%, and bottled.

The "first draining" provides the top grade sauce. The barrels may then be refilled with salt water for a second extraction but that "cooking grade" product isn't commonly exported to the US. The process is time consuming and expensive so some manufacturers add hydrolized wheat protein, acids, MSG and other additives to speed fermentation and mask defects. Check the label.

Buying: Look for a perfectly clear light amber color and an ingredient list including only Anchovies (or anchovy extract), water, salt and sugar. Price as a guide is rather unreliable here in Southern California, so it's probably less reliable elsewhere.

There are a couple dozen brands sold in Los Angles. Most come from Thailand and the Philippines but Vietnamese is becoming more common. Some Thai sauces are "Vietnamese style" and have Vietnamese lettering along with Thai. This is said to indicate they are slightly lighter and less salty than normal Thai practice.

Philippine fish sauces are considered heavier and undesirable for Thai and Vietnamese cooking. They are generally made from a number of different fish rather than just anchovies, harking back to the Roman practice of using a single fish species for the top grades and just about any fish for the lower grades.

Here are a few notable brands.

  • Tra Chang (Scale)   A top premium brand from Thailand, considered one of the very best by persons of taste. Not the easiest to find around here though.
  • Golden Boy   Another Thai premium brand that's highly recommended but a little hard to find.
  • Squid   A well regarded premium brand from Thailand. This is the one I generally use because it's good, widely available and attractively priced. It is slightly lighter in flavor and aroma than some other brands making it quite suitable for Vietnamese cooking as well as Thai. The only real downside is that the thoroughly American label lacks exotic mystique. It's a shaker bottle, very inconvenient, so I run the point of a small knife around the plastic restriction to remove it.
  • Tiparos   A widely available "every day" fish sauce by one of Thailand's leading food companies. It's put up in plastic bottles but is considered a very good general purpose fish sauce. It's both a big seller in Thailand and its "trade dress" is widely imitated by knock-offs.
  • Thai Kitchen   Put up in small bottles at a high price and not considered in the top ranks - but it may be the only fish sauce available in some areas. Thai Kitchen is an American brand that's been well marketed and is carried by many grocery chains. The 7 ounce bottle in the photo above cost more than the liter of Squid, a top brand.
  • One Pigeon   A reputable Vietnamese brand producing fish sauce in several concentrations. "25°dam" means 25%, a bit higher than most brands.
  • Three Crabs   This one has a cult following in North America for having been recommended by some TV chef or other. Part of its appeal is doubtless the almost uninterpretable label, but it's generally overpriced. The flavor is decent, but it says it's from Thailand but "processed in Hong Kong" and contains fructose and "hydrolized wheat protein" (a "concealment name" for Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)). All this indicates it is manufactured by chemical hydrolysis rather than natrual fermentation. In any case, it's kind of hard to fully trust anything that's "processed" in China, land of lead and melamine. The manufacturer has several other brands (Flying Fish, Flying Lion, etc.) with similar fine print on the label.
  • Rufina Patis   A typical Philippine fish sauce made from various scads, herring, sardines, mackerels, water, salt and Sodium Benzoate added as a preservative.
  • Vegetarian Fish Sauce:   These come from Vietnam, which has a stricter form of Buddhism than Thailand. They are not easy to find in Southern California, which is just as well, because the ones I've sampled were truly awful. If you don't need a clear sauce, use Yellow Bean Sauce (Healthy Boy is good), and if you need clear, just use salt, or perhaps soy sauce.
Other Fish Sauces

England   -   Worcestershire Sauce

This is a blend of ingredients apparently intended to bring Asian flavors to England in a convenient to sell and use bottled form. It appeared about 1830 but several cute stories of its creation are in conflict with each other and with history. All are probably false.

Since the first real ingredient after vinegar and sweeteners is "anchovies", actually salt fermented anchovies, I'm including it here in the fish sauce category. The current Lee & Perrins ingredient list is: vinegar, molasses, sugar, anchovies, water, hydrolyzed soy and corn protein ("concealment names" for MSG), onions, tamarinds, salt, garlic, cloves, chili peppers, natural flavorings, shallots.

Fish sauce, tamarind, chilis and shallots are often used in various combinations with each other in Southeast Asia, though never put up in a single sauce.

Laos   -   Pla Daek & Pla Som
Pla Daek is a pungent fish sauce considered the signature element in the cuisine of Laos and the adjacent northeast corner of Thailand. It is made by fermenting freshwater fish, a number of species being used. Pla Som is a sour version of the sauce. I haven't yet located either in Southern California markets but I haven't really looked yet.

Philippines   -   Bagoong Monamon Dilis & Bagoong Terong
Monamon Dilis

This sauce is very popular in the Philippines, particularly the northern Iloco region. It is pretty much what's left in the bottom of the barrels after the patis fish sauce is drained off. It might be similar to the Roman allec but we're not sure. It may be ground smooth or it may have whole anchovies in it as the photo specimen does. Monamon Dilis is made from anchovies but Bagoong Terong is made from a fish called "bonnet mouth fish".

This sauce is very strong, extremely salty and the smell is way stronger and fishier than regular fish sauce. Now we're definitely getting into that "acquired taste" space.

Vietnam   -   Mam Nem
Mam Nem

This pungent sauce made with anchovies and salt is similar to regular fish sauce except it still has ground up anchovies in it. It may be similar to the Roman allec, we don't know for sure, but most people will find it more appealing than the Philippine Bagoong Monamon. It is most widely used with pineapple and other ingredients to make the popular Mam Nem Dipping Sauce (recipe). Pre-made sauce is also sold but I find it less sophisticated and much harsher than sauce made per the recipe.


Photo - Roman gold aureus of Septimius Severus from CNG Coins through Wikipedia distributed under license. Creative Commons Attribution v2.5.

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