One of the most popular and widely used condiments across Southeast Asia, fish sauce is typically produced from allowing dried small fish such as anchovies to ferment. Salt and anchovies are laid out in large wooden crates or boxes to ferment before later adding water. Different manufacturers may use different combinations of ingredients though, some using a blend of seafood and other herbs and spices. Today, fish sauce is produced in numerous countries though the main exporters are Thailand and Vietnam.

Fish sauce has an extremely pungent flavor, that being very salty with a nearly equally distinctive aroma. For those not accustomed to cooking or eating fish sauce, it’s best to proceed in moderation. For countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippines and Indonesia, fish sauce is used on a daily basis in a wide variety of dishes including salads, curries, stews, stir-fries and soups. Throughout the Southeast Asian region, fish sauce is also widely used as a base to different types of condiments where typically ingredients such as garlic, red chili peppers, lime juice and sugar may be added.
For those outside of Asia, while the original state of fish sauce may not be too recognizable via taste and scent, it’s a guaranteed fact that anyone who has eaten at either a Vietnamese or Thai restaurant has tasted fish sauce mixed in to the cooking. Common culinary questions involving fish sauce are as follows.

Can you substitute soy sauce with fish sauce?
It depends on the dish you’re making. Most Chinese and Japanese dishes that require soy sauce cannot be substituted with fish sauce due to its pungent and distinctive “fishy” flavor. Whereas soy sauce is also salty, it is essentially vegetarian, thereby imparting a much milder though salty flavor. A good example would be the fact that you cannot substitute dipping sushi in fish sauce instead of soy sauce. However, for general dishes such as fried rice or stir-fried noodles from any Asian nation, you can substitute fish sauce for soy sauce or salt if you don’t mind altering the authenticity of the recipe. The dish will still taste great but it just won’t necessarily be true to that country’s original flavors. Also keep in mind when substituting that fish sauce has a higher sodium content so always use less of it than soy sauce or salt.

How long can fish sauce last in the pantry?
I’m sure that health inspectors will have a far more rigid and perhaps stringent answer to this question, citing something along the lines of a year or so if kept in the original clean bottle in a cool, dark pantry. However, I have seen fish sauce being kept in refrigerators and pantries for several years (by friends who don’t cook often) and I’ve bravely tasted the product in question, noting no major difference in taste or scent. And, I’m still alive.

Which brand of fish sauce is best?
This is really a matter of preference. At Asian Fusion, we’ve tasted every brand that’s available outside of Asia and we find them to all be acceptable. Typically, we do prefer the Squid Brand only because it seems to contain less sodium than the others and has a consistent flavoring from one bottle to the next. However, we’ve seen Asian restaurants and home cooks around the world using different brands, all resulting in delicious dishes.

Where can I buy fish sauce?
In Asia, fish sauce is available at pretty much every local market. Outside of Asia, fish sauce is readily available at nearly every Asian market. Typically, you’ll find it in the same aisle as soy sauce and other such condiments unless the Asian market organizes their shelves by region, in which case you would look under Southeast Asian, Thai or Vietnamese ingredients.

Here is a list of online retailers that sell fish sauce:

Import Food
Thai Kitchen