I put fish sauce in and on everything. This is not an exaggeration. A lot of people think they don’t like the stuff, but the fact is that I’ve never had a single “that’s fishy” complaint from any one of my diners whether they’re crusty SE Asian backpackers, fickle gourmands, or college girls who are absolutely positive they hate fish. The only complaint I frequently get is, “There isn”t more?”. Face it: fish sauce is universally delicious.
For those of you who want me to cut to the chase, I recommend these two brands:
- Tiparos – This is your “everyday” fish sauce. Its the least obtrusive and sweetest fish sauce. Every Thai household has bottles and bottles of this around for cooking and seasoning at the table.
- Phu Quoc, Flying Lion – It’s from the island of Phu Quoc in Vietnam. This tastes like liquid Parmigiano Reggiano. This is the nice stuff for when you want to let people know there’s something else in the dish. Glutard Warning: it contains Hydrolized Wheat Protein. I’m working on finding something as delicious that is less contaminated.
Fish sauce’s unique ability to elevate almost all food comes from it being an extremely pure, natural MSG delivery device. It’s the most mild-tempered and easily integrated Umami injection system ever created. And, it happens to be way more delicious than Crystal MSG.
Umami is probably more obvious in asian foods – think Unagi at a sushi joint, Anything in Oyster Sauce at a chinese joint, all Thai and Vietnamese food, and Korean Kalbi with that amazing red sweet/salty/spicy bean sauce they put on everything. What you probably don’t realize is that continental food has a lot of Umami as well. Cheese (especially Parm and Blue varieties), pickles, shellfish, porcini mushrooms, Hams, TRUFFLES, and much, much, much more. So, naturally, using a very pure and unobtrusive Umami sauce in continental or New American food works wonders.
There’s nothing uniquely Asian about taking a barrel full of anchovies, sardines, or some other small sea creature, salting it heavily, and letting it ferment in it’s own drawn-out juices. In fact, the Romans did this a long time ago and it was called Garum. Using fish sauce in your Béchamel is downright old school.
When you cook with it, don’t be afraid. Just make sure that you watch the saltiness of the entire dish by tasting every step of the way. I like to use both salt and Fish sauce. That way, you can control the saltiness and the wondrous sensation of Umami. It’s good to have a spectrum.
Need some unconventional ideas? Well, I put it in: Cassoulet, Chili, Cauliflower Cheese, Broccoli with Garlic-Butter, Tomato Sauce (except for the one time I’m filming), Beef Bourguignon, Clams in White Wine, Chimichurri, Salsas in general, Guacamole, Pesto, OMFG Caesar Dressing, Clam Chowder, Veal Marsala, Red wine pan sauces, Paté, Chantrelles in Butter w/ Parsley, Omelets, etc, etc, etc… Here’s what it’s not in: Dessert. And, I absolutely guarantee you there’s probably an easy way to make it work if you really want to.