Reviews you can trust.See why.
The World of Fish Sauce
Fish sauce has deep flavor—and deep historical roots around the world.
What You Need To Know
Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami are the five basic tastes, but taste is only one component of flavor. When considering a powerful ingredient like fish sauce, one can’t capture its entire personality without mentioning funk. Not a taste but rather a family of aromas, funk is often the result of fermentation, and its presence in fish sauce is no exception. Fish sauce is a crucial ingredient in Southeast Asian recipes, but its historical roots (we’re talking 5th century BCE) circumnavigate the globe. There are few other ingredients that can transform a dish with just a few drops, and a bottle (or two) of fish sauce deserves a place in every kitchen. Our tasting consisted of 17 sauces from seven countries, focusing primarily on Asian fish sauces, but including a few modern iterations of ancient European styles as well. We also interviewed experts well versed in a variety of cuisines to learn more about this potent seasoning.
Where Was Fish Sauce Invented?
It isn’t quite clear where fish sauce originated, but there’s one thing we’re sure of: It’s ancient. Its first recorded production, called gàros, was by ancient Greeks along the Black Sea. Many historians believe that garum, the Roman version, originated from gàros. In any waterfront locale—whether on the sea or fresh water—it’s highly likely that people were salting seafood to preserve it and thus discovered fish sauce independently.
What Is Fish Sauce and How Is It Made?
To make fish sauce, salted fish (typically anchovies, depending on the region and what’s abundant in nearby waters) are placed in containers (wood barrels, concrete vats, stone crocks, or plastic bins). They are weighed down to expel air and left to ferment, often in the sun or other warm environment, for six to 18 months or more.
During this time, the fish break down and release flavorful liquid. The enzymes performing this transformation come from two sources: the microorganisms responsible for fermentation and the intestines and muscles of the fish themselves through a process called autolysis, also known as self-digestion. Making fish sauce takes guts. Literally.
The first press of the liquid is the most flavorful and valuable, sometimes even referred to as extra-virgin fish sauce. Subsequent extractions are made by running seawater through the container, yielding a weaker product. Often, later extractions are mixed with earlier extractions to achieve the right concentration for the final product.
The World of Fish Sauce
After extensive research, we ultimately found that which sauce you should buy largely boils down to where you want to shop. Everything is available online these ...
Everything We Tested
Thai Fish Sauces
Tasters found this fish sauce to be very “potent,” “funky,” and “briny,” but “more sweet than others.”
One taster picked up on “some bright, almost citrusy notes.” This sauce is “moderately salty” and “mildly sweet” with a “fish flavor that is totally approachable.” Multiple tasters picked up on a “winey scent” and a “caramelly” aftertaste.
This fish sauce has a “funky fish scent” but doesn’t quite follow through on the palate, as tasters remarked it was “mild” with “less fish and fermented flavor.” Some found it a bit too salty and “less nuanced.”
This fish sauce has a potent aroma. Tasters found it to be “briny” and “well-balanced” with “rich, toasty” notes.
This fish sauce has “an extra umami layer,” kind of ”like having bouillon” in it. Tasters noticed it was “sharp” and “salt-forward” with “a moderate amount of fish flavor” and a “secondary sweetness.”
The manufacturer, based in Thailand, said that the blue label is for the “foreign market” and is a bit milder than the brown label, which our tasters picked up on. Tasters found this fish sauce to be “briny” and “savory” with a “lingering complexity.” Like others, “the salt really dominates,” but it has an additional “caramel” backbone and “balanced sweetness.”
This fish sauce has a “mildly funky fish flavor” and is “assertively salty.” One taster thought it “lacked depth and fish-forward umami” and another said it was “less intense,” but others enjoyed its “tempered sweetness.”
Tasters found this fish sauce to have “vegetal undertones” but it was “intensely salty.” It’s “funky in a great way” and “deeply savory.”
Vietnamese-Style Fish Sauces
This fish sauce produced in Hong Kong by a Vietnamese company had “great balance all around,” one taster wrote. The sauce had a “caramelized sweetness,” with a fish flavor that’s “present without being overwhelming or too mild.”
This dark brown fish sauce has an almost “burnt” flavor that “tastes aged” with an unexpected “sourness.” It’s very salty but a bit less “fishy” and “complex.”
This fish sauce is dark amber in color and has a “bold fish flavor” with “some nice funk.” It’s salty first and foremost but definitely has “depth and an oaky brininess.” With no added sugar, it’s “not supersweet.”
Korean Fish Sauces
This fish sauce is “intensely salty,” with one taster suggesting it “almost just tastes like soy sauce” and another picking up on an “almost beefy flavor.”
Filipino Fish Sauce
One taster noted that this ultrasalty fish sauce had very little aroma and tasted like “seawater,” while others noted that it was very straightforward, just “salt” and “funk.”
This fish sauce was extremely “salty” with nearly zero sweetness. It has a “strong, fermented, funky aroma” with “fish flavors” that are “as strong as it smells.”
European Fish Sauces
Tasters found this sample to be “very herbaceous,” almost veering toward “floral.” Two tasters even compared it to gingerbread. It also had a great balance of “salty” and “funky.”
This sample was “deeper and roastier,” one taster wrote. It was a bit of a “salt [and] fish bomb” but with a “sweetness to balance it all.”
This sauce was “vibrant and acidic,” “fresher” tasting, “light,” and “moderately salty.”
Reviews you can trust
The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Sarah is an assistant editor for ATK Reviews who is deeply passionate about anchovies and sourdough bread.