Monday, October 11, 2010

Behold the Glory of Fish Sauce

It might seem strange that I have such strong emotions for a condiment that is, for all intensive purposes, made from rotting fish.  This is, of course, not entirely true as the fish is technically fermented, but that's weird enough for most.

Fish sauce has a long history in the culinary world. In fact, it was ubiquitous in classical Roman cooking. Cited in texts, garum, was important for both the aristocracy and the hoi polloi, with the only distinction being in the quality (some of it might've been rotten).  Furthermore, that stuff that you been putting in your burgers and meatloaf, Worcestershire sauce, is basically derived from this same principle.

So my question is: why isn't fish sauce more widely used outside of Asia.  It adds wonderful salty and savory notes (umami) to any dish and really isn't as fishy as you would think, especially when used sparingly (sorry Tom).

The origin of fish sauce is still debated.  One of the claims that seems to be most accepted is that fish sauce first appeared in China. The theory is that the ancient Chinese fishing boats were unable to venture into deeper ocean waters to catch larger fish, instead they were forced to stay closer to shore and net smaller fish that lacked substantial meat but were packed with oil. They found that by layering fish in barrels with salt, they could preserve the fish that would otherwise spoil, and produce a protein-rich sauce.  This, over time, evolved through the addition of soya beans to become the fermented bean sauce known today as soy sauce. Hell, even the origin of kethcup is also tied to fish sauce.

Given its historical importance, I must take a stand; I'm making it my mission to convince people of how amazing fish sauce is.  For that reason, don't be surprised if you see fish sauce showing up in a number of recipes, including ones you might not expect.  I encourage everyone to go pick up a bottle of fish sauce (my favorite, that is readily accessible, is Flying Lion Brand, seen above) and experiment with it in recipes outside of Southeast Asian cuisine.  You'll be surprised at its effects.

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