It’s Time To Set Your Fish Sauce Free
by Ben Choi
Sometimes it seems to me that practically everybody in America is a little uptight when it comes to Asian fish sauce. I mean, some folks are closed off to any condiment that might taste or smell “fishy,” while others are intent on dusting off the hand-hammered iron wok and slavishly chasing the dragon on that authentic dining experience in Phuket. To the former group I’d say, the tree of globalism can only grow tall when good men and women eat challenging ethnic food. Also, fish sauce is really not that fishy. To the latter: I respect that purist’s sensibility, but it’s also okay to use authentic Asian things in nontraditional ways. After all, look what the Asians have done with our Spam and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. It’s fine to color outside the lines here a little.
In my view, Asian fish sauce is an essential condiment, and I mean that in both senses of the word: It’s essential I have some in the house; and it imparts a flavor essence, a roundness or lip-adhesive quality that can and should be used in ways that exceed tradition. Think of how radically the uses of tomato paste, Parmesan cheese, and Campbell’s cream of mushroom have expanded beyond their initial roles in American and European cuisine. Heck, think of ketchup. (The word ketchup, by the way, is derived from the name of an Asian fish sauce — Henry Heinz could not have predicted I’d be using his sauce on my gyoza.)
Of course, using fish to flavor sauce is by no means an exclusively Asian thing. A fermented fish condiment called ‘Garum’ was widely used by the ancient Romans. Imagine how necessary that little injection of umami would be to soldiers subsisting mostly on spelt porridge. Today, Italians use a product called Colatura di Alici that’s made in a very similar way to Asian fish sauce. Anchovy is also a main flavor element in Worcestershire sauce and the even more peculiarly English foodstuff with the suggestive name “Gentleman’s Relish.”
The fish sauce we’re talking about here, though, might more properly be called nam pla or nuoc mam; though I believe these are just the Thai and Vietnamese terms for ‘fish sauce.’ By whatever name, this stuff is produced by packing fresh anchovies with large amounts of salt, and sometimes sugar, and allowing the mixture to ferment over the course of months (sometimes to over a year), and finally filtering out the clear, dark caramel-colored fluid. Widely available in the U.S., it comes primarily from Thailand. That said, a couple of Thai brands I’ve tried are marketed as nuac mam, rather than nam pla, and are said to be produced in the Vietnamese style, which results in a milder, more complex flavor profile. I prefer the milder varieties, so I guess I’m a nuoc mam devotee. And I was quite pleased to find out that a super-premium brand of genuine Vietnamese fish sauce is now available in the States.
Here are some notes on a few of the brands I was able to purchase at some Asian specialty markets near my house and one Anglo gourmet shop:
Squid Brand: This is a fairly typical Thai brand, salty with a fairly fishy, robust flavor. I’d use it primarily in very strongly flavored, cooked Thai dishes like curries stir frys. Under $2 for a 24-oz.bottle.
Three Crabs: This is the brand most American foodies rely on. It’s from Thailand but made in the Vietnamese style. Mild and slightly sweet, this sauce pretty good for all-around use. Please note that Three Crabs is the only one of this group that incorporates hydrolysed vegetable protein as a flavor enhancer. Those sensitive to MSG or leery of food additives should take this into account. Under $4 for a 24-oz.bottle.
Flying Horse on Earth Brand: Salty but mellow. Good all-around fish sauce, but keep the saltiness in mind. I find I like to use this one as a go-to cooking fish sauce and used it on the shortribs and enchilada sauce. I love the name and logo, too. Under $3 for a 24-oz. bottle.
Red Boat 40°N: This is the super premium stuff, first-press and actually from Phu Quoc, Vietnam, an island that is said to produce the best fish sauce . The N-designation refers to grams of nitrogen per liter. Very clean tasting, more subtle, no off tastes at all. It’s pretty dear, so I’d use this for mildly flavored dishes and non-cooking uses like in vinaigrettes or on pasta. I had to go to a pretty gourmet, white-people shop in Berkeley to get this. Under $7 for an 8.45-oz. bottle. (Note that Red Boat also comes in a 50°N version that is said to be even higher quality and more complex. It’s currently out of stock and runs about $10 for 80 ml.)
I’m sure you’re aware of how fish sauce can be used in Thai curries, Vietnamese fried-rice dishes and dipping sauces. As seasoned internet users, you have available to you all kinds of authentic uses of nuoc mam and nam pla. So I’ve focused here on fish sauce as a general condiment, for use on dishes that you and I haven’t thought up yet, or as enhancements to your mama’s traditional recipes.
CLAYPOT BONELESS BEEF SHORT RIBS BRAISED IN RED WINE
This is kind of a fusion dish that combines the western technique of wine-braising short ribs with both Asian and Western seasonings. I use the clay pot entirely for looks. I recommend serving it over a nice root vegetable puree, like celeriac and Dutch yellow potatoes.
2 ½ to 3 lbs. boneless beef short ribs cut crosswise into 3-inch pieces
1 tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. ground fennel
½ tsp. ground sichuan peppercorns
1 tsp. canola oil
½ tsp. sesame oil
1 cup dry red wine
¼ cup red wine vinegar
¼ cup hoisin sauce
1 tbsp. gochujang
2 tsp. dark soy sauce
1 tsp. of regular soy sauce
2 tbsp. fish sauce
1 tsp. granulated garlic
2 tsp. granulated onion
2 cups water
1 cup sliced fresh shiitake mushrooms sliced thin.
3 green onions sliced crosswise into 2-inch sections
additional ½ tsp sesame oil
Combine salt, fennel and sichuan peppercorns thoroughly in a small bowl you can pinch from. Season the short ribs on all sides, but don’t be too generous, as there are a lot of salty ingredients to follow. Reserve remaining seasoning for later.
Preheat oven to 350°. In a dutch oven, heat canola and sesame oil over medium-high heat to shimmering. Brown ribs well on all sides. As the ribs brown combine next nine ingredients (red wine to granulated onion) in a bowl and whisk in water. When all ingredients have dissolved, add liquid to pot and bring up to a simmer. Cover and braise in the oven for about 2 hours.
When meat is fork-tender, remove pot from oven. Using tongs, layer ribs inside clay pot; cover and set aside in the residual heat of (turned-off) oven. Put dutch oven back on stove, and vigorously simmer uncovered for a 20 minutes to reduce volume of braising liquid. Add mushrooms and green onions and simmer for an additional 10 minutes. Season to taste with reserved salt-seasoning mixture from first paragraph. Incorporate reduced liquid into warm claypot and serve.
RED ENCHILADA SAUCE
2 dried New Mexico chiles, stemmed and seeded and cut into ¼-inch strips
2 Ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded and cut into ¼-inch strips
2 tsp. whole cumin seeds
2 tsp. olive oil
¾ cup chicken stock
1 15-oz. can of tomato sauce
1 tsp. granulated onion
½ tsp. granulated garlic
the juice of ½ lime
2 tsp. fish sauce
Heat up a cast-iron skillet over medium high heat for about 5 minutes. Add chiles and shake the skillet like you’re making popcorn for about a full minute. Add cumin seeds and continue moving stuff around until seeds are browned and the fragrance is quite heady. Set aside in a bowl to cool. Place cool chiles and seeds in a spice mill and grind to to the consistency of medium-fine sand.
Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat and add spice powder,combining to form a paste. Quickly add chicken stock, tomato sauce, and onion and garlic. Stir well to combine and bring to a simmer. Squeeze in lime juice and add fish sauce. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer for 5 more minutes, stirring occasionally. Makes about 1¾ cups.
SICILIAN WALNUT PESTO
¼ cup chopped walnuts
1 pound grape tomatoes
½ cup packed basil leaves
⅓ habanero (from a jar), stemmed, seeded and diced
1 pepperoncini (from a jar), stemmed, seeded, and diced
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbsp. fish sauce (use the Red Boat)
kosher salt to taste
toasted bread crumbs for topping
Toast walnuts in a cast-iron skillet over medium high heat until they’re faintly golden-brown and fragrant. Set aside to cool.
Place cool nuts along with tomatoes, basil, habanero, and pepperoncini in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until smooth, scraping down sides of bowl once or twice. Run processor for about thirty seconds while drizzling in olive oil and fish sauce. Adjust salt to taste. You should now have enough pesto for about a pound of the pasta of your choice. Top with toasted bread crumbs just before serving.
9 oz Clamato
1 ½ shots of vodka
5 dashes tabasco
1 dash of Worcestershire sauce
the juice from ½ lime
¼ tsp horseradish
½ tsp fish sauce (use the Red Boat)
Combine all ingredients well and serve over ice in a tall glass with your preferred garnishes.
Ben Choi will soon go on a diet.