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#34 Fish Sauce

Posted March 14th, 2008 by Peter · 20 Comments
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Southeastern Asians know of a fountain of youth that not only never runs dry, but protects whoever accesses it. To non-asians, it’s an anomaly. To asians, who know its secrets, fish sauce is a staple export and seasoning.

“Peee-You…” If you have ever been to a Vietnamese restaurant, you will be able to remember two main seasonings: the jet black soy sauce and its more distant cousin: Fish Sauce. Asians love the pungent taste of fish sauce and use it whenever possible. A staple in Southeastern Asian cuisine, it is a good substitute for salt and sodium in many dishes. Many Chinese (Cantonese), Thai, and Vietnamese cuisines rely heavily on Fish Sauce to provide that extra zing that it gives. Remember that this zing must be provided over 365 days a year to bowls of rice in many asian countries.

Like rice, Fish Sauce is a good source of vitamin B and protein. It is ironically made from — surprise, surprise — salted fish! In addition to being a valuable cooking ingredient, fish sauce also doubles as a dipping sauce for everything from vegetables and seafood, to spring rolls and rice cakes. Due to its varying consistency, some asians even call it “fish gravy.” In Vietnam, it is known as “nuoc mam,” and in Thailand, “nam pla.” It also comes in many brands, including squid, fish, and crab. (Contrary to common belief, the popular Squid Brand fish sauce does in fact contain no squid.) The average asian is even able to tell if it’s been used in a dish or not, showing the importance it has to asians around the world. (It is one of the many asian traits that make up for lack of stature.)

Though its uses are numerous, many still find it difficult to bare the “horrible” smell. The reasons that most asians can stand the smell are:









Long Shelf Life: It’s 102 degrees inside and 120 outside. You are sweating enough to wash a car and dry it with your own shirt. Imagine trying to preserve salt in a hot and humid environment and highly-questionable sanitary living conditions. This is the situation in Southern Vietnam during the winter. Asians know what will happen if they purchase salt. They teach it to their children and they teach it to their children. Here’s the correct answer!: It would most definitely spoil, leaving the asians without sodium to fuel their “high-blood pressure” diets. Enter fish sauce, which is instead stored in a bottle with a cap in order to preserve its freshness. It’s an innovation that has allowed asians everywhere to season their food without the hassle of salt. I haven’t even mentioned the number of precious salt morsels lost during the transferral process because asians hate wasting food, down to the very last grain. Why pay for bad salt when an asian only has to endure some reeking aroma. Another important reason for utilizing fish sauce is:

Protection: When non-asians penetrate the glass windows of an asian restaurant, there is a secondary defense mechanism that keeps the asians from being bothered. This aura spans about a 4 meter radius from its center of tastiness. It is only until the bottle is closed, or the sauce is assimilated that it subsides. Fish sauce not only helps asians enjoy their food, it is a way to keep non-asians from harrassing them about their family recipes. “What’s this made of? It’s fabulous!!” Much like a skunk, fish sauce holds the ability to release an odor in order to protect its asian master’s recipes from being mimicked. When non-asian eat delectable asian dishes, they always ask about the “secret ingredient.” Asians always answer, “Fish sauce,” which more times than none turns the person off faster than a picture of goatse. Asians know that it is they and only they that can withstand the putrid stench. This leaves non-asians at a loss when they are around it. As a result, asians benefit, because the smell allows asians to enjoy their meals without constantly being bothered when they are at restaurants.

If you want to try out some fish sauce this upcoming weekend, enter any Vietnamese restaurant. Here’s a guide to prepare yourself for the rush of pleasure that will ensue after seasoning your dish with fish sauce. First of all, forget all your preconceived notions of smell. You must carry a blank slate of smell before you can fully enjoy fish sauce. Secondly, add varying amounts of fish sauce to test its consistency and taste. Third, take it like a man! Asians expect you to gag at the sight and smell. You don’t want to make a bad impression. If all goes well, congratulations. You have lived your life in the shoes of an asian person for one day, and earned yourself the right to, for practical and defensive reasons, Love Fish Sauce.

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Tags: Culture · Customs · Food & Beverage · Habits · People · Products

20 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Justin // Mar 15, 2008 at 1:25 am

    yummy! i love fish sauce, especially with sugar as dip for raw mangoes crazy huh?

  • 2 Amy // Mar 15, 2008 at 6:13 am

    Fish sauce is the best!
    But then that’s just the lightweight. There are heavy hitters such as mắm na!ªm, mắm ruốc, mắm ta!´m too!
    Regarding the smell, sure they stink. But think blue cheese of the French, fermented tofu of the Chinese, or some of the heavier curries of the Indian. After all, food is an acquired taste.

    Excuse me, i have to go & make myself some ba!ºn mắm. haha :)

  • 3 SumGai // Mar 27, 2008 at 8:50 am

    Justin,

    If by raw, you mean green (and sour) mangoes, then it’s not crazy!

    When I was young, I feasted on this, except my mom added chili to zest it up more. Same with crabapples! Yummm (but man bad for the digestive system the next few days, lol!)!

  • 4 Justin // Mar 27, 2008 at 10:18 am

    Yeah I mean green and sour mangoes =) you know what you’re talking about then!! it’s soo good…yeah, i eat it with chili…and sometimes the purple shrimp paste thing with chili….also you can eat it with other crunchy/sour fruits!

  • 5 Anonymous // Apr 3, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    Amy, you’re making me hungry. T_T

  • 6 Amy // Apr 3, 2008 at 7:29 pm

    hehe Anonymous, I too was drooling just typing that myself!

    Justin,
    Hahahaa green mango & sugary fish sause! I still remember the one time we brought this evil mix to school and some idiot spilled the sauce on his desk. Oh the stench!
    And have you heard the thing about eating that and then drinking iced tea right after? Don’t go there! :) ))

  • 7 Justin // Apr 3, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    are you serious? how does that taste? is it so that your breath wouldn’t stink that much?

  • 8 Amy // Apr 3, 2008 at 7:46 pm

    No, it’s a bit yucky (!), but here goes: it’s a common belief that if you do that, you’ll get the worst case of runny tummy ever!
    I don’t know, I’m not a big fan of sour fruits. But have seen it happen to my friends. Not pretty! Something to do with the fermented sauce & sour stuff & cold temperature I guess.

  • 9 Tarie // Apr 18, 2008 at 9:16 am

    This site is hilarious! I just keep laughing and laughing and laughing. =D

  • 10 Waterlily // Sep 28, 2008 at 8:27 am

    I love raw mango! Smear a bit of chili powder/rock salt on it, and you pretty much have heaven, right there.
    I’m not Southeast Asian, but I don’t mind fish sauce (or its smell). And what are the stinky Indian curies you guys know of (if any)? I want to try some..

  • 11 Cambokicksit // Oct 26, 2008 at 11:20 pm

    squid brand fish sauce is the best. it goes so well for dip with summer rolls and ban chiv (KHMER –Cambodian for those who don’t know).

  • 12 James // Sep 8, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    Fish Sauce is the single greatest sauce on earth

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    LOL we have that brand of fish sauce in the picture.

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  • 18 Girl Here // Oct 2, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    It smells, but we use it for everything. XD
    I have the 5th one.

  • 19 maggie // Nov 21, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    A lady from the Phillipines moved away and left a bottle of Rufina fish sauce. I can’t make out the expiration date, but the bottle looks really old. Should I take the chance and use it?

  • 20 ilovehorseyrides // Sep 26, 2015 at 4:13 pm

    When I was a toddler, I actually drank fish sauce that was left in my bowl after I ate my dinner of Vietnamese steamed rice rolls.

    Now that I’m older, I no longer do that :)

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