To most people, fish sauce may smell like liquid death, but for others it's the secret ingredient that ties their whole dish together. But what is fish sauce? Fish sauce is a staple ingredient in Asian culture, particularly in Vietnam and Thailand. Understandably, you may have assumed that fish sauce originated in an Asian country, but it actually originated in Rome (though you don't see fish sauce in their cuisine anymore).

How Fish Sauce Is Made

fish, seafood, sardine, mackerel
Dea Uy

There are a variety of different fish sauces (with shellfish or herbs/spice), but its main ingredients are whole fish (usually anchovies) and salt. The two main ingredients are fermented together until the fish breaks down into a smoothie-like consistency (this takes about six months). It's then transferred to a woven basket to help separate the liquids from the solids.

After the liquids are collected, they're let out in the sun to evaporate some of the extra water content. The fish sauce is ready when the salt starts to crusts up. It's then transferred over to ceramic urns or plastic barrels and kept to ferment for more than six months to enhance the flavour of the fish sauce. Finally, they are bottled and labelled to be sold to the consumers.

Ways to Use Fish Sauce

There are many ways to use fish sauce, but here are the most common uses: 

1. Soup/Stew Base

pho, soup, noodle, pork, ramen, broth, beef
Tiffany Tran

Fish sauce is often used as an ingredient in a soup to help enhance the flavor of the broth, giving it a nice salty taste. Cooking the fish sauce in a dish also causes the "funky smell" to disappear, which is a bonus. Try making this 15-minute ramen with your new bottle of fish sauce.

2. Marinade 

meat, chicken, pork, barbecue, beef, sauce
Christin Urso

When you use fish sauce in a marinade, it allows the dish to develop a nice robust flavor without having a fishy taste. The acid in the fish sauce helps tenderize the meat as well. Give it a go with this Asian marinade.

3. Sauce

tofu, sauce, chicken, vegetable, soy, fish
Benjamin Martin

Fish sauce can be a quick dipping sauce for things like dumplings and wonton. This Vietnamese dipping sauce would be perfect with any number of Asian-style dishes.

Alternatives to Fish Sauce

If you don't have fish sauce but want to achieve a similar flavour profile, you have a few options that you can substitute it with. If the recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of fish sauce, just substitute it with 1 teaspoon of soy sauce instead. However, it's important to note that you can't substitute fish sauce if it calls for soy sauce in the recipe. You can also substitute 1 teaspoon of fish sauce with 1 teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce if you're in a pinch. 

Making a good fish sauce takes time, hard work, and a lot of preparation. The end result is phenomenal; with a drop of fish sauce, your whole dish will be brought up to another level.