Fish sauce. The name of this condiment sounds, well, fishy, but the tiny bottle boasts some serious flavor that can bring a lot to your pantry. To answer all of our most pressing questions about this condiment, we consulted Chef Daniel Le of the Thai restaurant Essex Pearl. 

What is fish sauce?

“Fish sauce is a liquid condiment that’s been derived from anchovies pressed by salt in barrels,” Le said. Anchovies are left to ferment in barrels for many months to years. As the mixture ferments, the bodies of the fish hydrolyze (turn into a liquid) and produce different enzymes. 

What does fish sauce taste like?

“Fish sauce has an umami profile with a salty taste,” Le said. “It adds another element to a dish by bringing a pungent fermentation that often rounds out a dish if it is either too tangy or too sweet.” It can also be used as a substitute for salt as fish sauce is very salty, Le added.

Because fish sauce has a unique taste, it might be difficult for people with shellfish allergies or aversions or vegetarians to find a substitute. “Fish sauce can not really be substituted as it has a flavor profile in its own category. People often used soy sauce as an alternative but it does not bring the same elements to a dish,” Le continued. However, there are many grocery stores that offer vegan fish sauce alternatives as well as recipes for alternatives. Here is one recipe from the minimalist baker for a 5-Ingredient Vegan Fish sauce.

What dishes can you use fish sauce in?

Fish sauce is commonly used in Southeast Asian cuisine, such as in Thai, Vietnamese, and Filipino dishes. Some popular dishes fish sauce is used in are Pad Thai, Pho noodle soup, and Yum Woon Sen.

Fish sauce can also be used as a dipping sauce for meats, spring rolls, and dumplings. “My favorite way to use fish sauce is by mixing it with minced garlic, minced bird's eye chili, cane sugar, lime juice, and a little bit of water,” Le said. “It makes a very good dipping sauce for basically any protein or vegetable.” 

What is the best fish sauce brand?

Le’s favorite fish sauce is Son Fish Sauce. “It is very natural. There are no additives or chemicals added to each bottle keeping the flavor rich and pure,” said Le.“The process that Son Fish Sauce uses is very organized and clean so that the product is consistently of the highest quality that I am able to use in restaurants for years.”