What is fish sauce, exactly?

Yasemen Kaner-White 23 June 2022

We dive into the uses, health benefits and surprisingly ancient history of fish sauce, one of the most popular culinary flavours all over the world

A brief history of fish sauce

There are mentions of fish sauce going back to ancient Greek and Roman times, and it is thought to have been a commonplace ingredient as early as seventh century BCE.

It is said that the first recorded fish sauce was made by ancient Greeks along the Black Sea coastline. Some historians believe it was then introduced by Romans to Asia via the Silk Road, while others believe that Asian communities independently invented their own.

"There are mentions of fish sauce going back to ancient Greek and Roman times"

The Romans used to ferment with salt the entrails and blood of fish like mackerel, anchovies, sprats, tunny, mullet and even oysters and sea urchins, then leave them to macerate in the sun. They called the resulting product garum.

Pliny said that garum was “blended to the colour of old honey wine”. The oldest Roman recipe book dating back to first century CE, called Apicius, by the renowned epicure Marcus Gavius Apicius, details around 350 recipes featuring fish sauce that are both savoury and sweet.

How is fish sauce made?

Fishing baskets containing anchovies in VietnamFish sauce is ordinarily made out of oily fish, like anchovies, but can sometimes come from shellfish

Traditionally fish sauce is made from fish and salt that are left to ferment until a liquid is produced.

The type of fish can differ, though it is normally oily fish such as anchovies, herring, carp or mackerel. Sometimes prawns, squid or krill are used instead.

Like wine, the vessel it is fermented in, how long it is aged and the method of extraction varies and will produce a different taste.

Nowadays fish sauce frequently contains sugar, colours, MSG, additives and preservatives designed to extend its shelf life.

When shopping for your sauce, choose one that has the least ingredients, two or three, with the main one being fish. Similar to olive oil, it is often the case that the pricier ones are best, as is the first pressing.

Are there any health benefits?

As well as imparting a complex and enhancing flavour profile, making it a crucial ingredient in many dishes, fish sauce also has health benefits.

Fish sauce contains a high amount of essential amino acids, which support sleep and boost both the digestive system and metabolism.

"Fish sauce contains a high amount of essential amino acids, which support sleep"

Another benefit is the omega-3 it delivers, which helps to reduce blood cholesterol and improves both brain and heart function. And it has a significant level of iron and Vitamin B12—you could say fish sauce is the ultimate umami!

Some suggested uses

Although the standard role of fish sauce is as a seasoning to impart flavour, it can also be used to cure meat.

Executive chef of Michelin-starred Pied à Terre restaurant in London, Asimakis Chaniotis, says, “I like to marinate raw fish and meat with a mix of 50 per cent fish sauce and 50 per cent lemon juice. I marinate thin slices of either in the mixture for a few minutes before I serve it, which boosts flavour and cures the protein, so it makes it more interesting when eating.”

In the case of spaghetti alla colatura di alici (spaghetti with anchovy sauce), fish sauce is the star ingredient.

Colatura di alici is the typical fish sauce hailing from Cetara, a tiny fishing town in the Amalfi Coast. This pungent amber-coloured sauce, made from fermented anchovies, is a PDO product, meaning it has a “protected designation of origin.”

It isn’t just Asia and Italy however that use fish sauce on a frequent basis. English Worcestershire Sauce was created in 1837 from a happy accident by two chemists John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins, who concocted a new condiment.

Not happy with it, they put it aside and rediscovered it 18 months later, by which time the fermentation had produced a delicious sauce. It is still made in Worcester and exported to over 130 countries around the world.

Worcestershire Sauce is one of the most popular additions to pep up cheese on toast, to Caesar salad, to spaghetti bolognaise and of course a Bloody Mary wouldn’t exist without it.

Further fish sauce intrigue

Ruins of Champa Kingdom in Phan Thiet, VietnamThe "Fish Sauce Museum" in Phan Thiết shows the sauce's regional history going back to the Champa Kingdom

Fish sauce has captured the interest of many, so much so that you can visit a museum dedicated to it in Vietnam, the country which consumes it the most.

Bảo tàng nước mắm Làng Chài Xưa “Fish Sauce Museum” in Phan Thiết was the brainchild of Dr Trần Ngọc Dũng, a Vietnamese-American who wanted to share his passion for the 300-year-old fish sauce history in Vietnam, dating from the time of the Champa Kingdom to the present day.

"You can visit a museum of fish sauce in Vietnam, the country which consumes it the most"

Visitors exploring the 14-room museum gain an insight into the timeline from when the Cham people in Phan Thiết City learned from Roman traders to ferment fish into sauce, to when Trần Gia Hòa (born in 1872) first commercialised it, to today when the city is the largest export hub in the country.

There are a few fish sauce recipe books in the market for inspiration. For those wishing to delve deeper into the fish sauce discourse, Sally Grainger wrote a whole book on it called The Story of Garum, Fermented Fish Sauce and Salted Fish in the Ancient World.

The best way to get to grips with the sauce however is to start experimenting in the kitchen. If it isn’t already, you’ll soon find fish sauce is frequently the answer to create a fantastic savoury flavour.

Read more: 15 Must-have condiments for your pantry

Read more: 11 Condiments you can make at home

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