Fish sauce has deep flavor—and deep historical roots around the world.
Published Apr. 20, 2023.
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.
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.
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.
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 ...
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.