Everything you never knew about fish sauce (but have wanted to ask)
If you’re new to cooking, you may come across a recipe that calls for fish sauce. You might be thinking: Fish sauce? What could that be? The name seems so… generic. Not tilapia, salmon, or tuna sauce, just — fish sauce?
Fish sauce is a condiment containing small fish (typically anchovies or, sometimes, krill). It’s a common seasoning in many Asian recipes. You’ve probably eaten dishes made with fish sauce without realizing it (think Pad Thai, larb, green papaya salad, and a variety of stir-fries).
In case your mind just conjured up images of bottled, puréed fish, it’s not like that. No, fish used in fish sauce, or more accurately, good fish sauce, is coated in salt and then fermented — sometimes up to two years. It’s this fermentation process that gives fish sauce its unique flavor.
Let’s start with a little history
Ancient Western cultures, such as Phoenicia, ancient Greece, Rome, and Carthage, had their own garum-based fish sauces, which, it’s believed, were brought to the West by the Romans. Fermentation is the foundation for all versions and is based on three simple ingredients: fish, salt, and water.
Fermentation has been used for centuries to preserve meat, fish, vegetables, and other foods naturally and safely, while developing unusual flavors over time. But fermentation is so much more.
In addition to serving as a natural preservative, the fermentation process also creates a wonderful diversity of strains of beneficial bacteria that contribute greatly to gut, immune, and mental health and much more.1,2
You may want to refer to our article on kimchi for an example of another Asian staple where fermentation plays an important role in producing healthful strains of Lactobacillus bacteria by fermenting cabbage, radish, red peppers, garlic, ginger, and onions.
Want to make your own? Our Kefir Starter and Veggie Culture Starter are perfect for beginners and long-time fermenters who enjoy fermenting at home.
This is what fish sauce tastes like
Fish sauce, in general, is difficult to describe because it combines salty, sweet, tangy, and fishy characteristics into one distinct flavor. With the popularity of Asian cuisine in the United States increasing every year, a good fish sauce is a must for any “serious” Asian or Asian-fusion chef and their restaurant.
As stated above, fish sauce is created when natural, healthy bacteria, produced through fermentation, break down the fish over a months-to-years-long process that results in tasty, briny, fishy flavor — with that slight sweetness we mentioned.
Small fish like anchovies are coated in salt and placed in large barrels to ferment for a duration ranging from months to a year, sometimes two. The length of the fermentation process can influence the flavor. Slower fermentation creates different flavors than fermentation that doesn’t last as long.
So, what about that ‘fifth taste?’
The word umami has made its way into the American vocabulary over the past few decades. But its definition is difficult to pin down. It’s often referred to as the “fifth taste” (following salty, sweet, sour, and bitter). It’s a term that developed when nothing else could fully convey its culinary qualities.
Umami describes a flavor that’s at once deep and hearty with an intensity not unlike seared beef, soy sauce, tamari, ripe tomato, and mushrooms, to name a few. It possesses an addictive quality that leaves you wanting more.
But what is the “fifth taste?” And what does it have to do with fish sauce? Stay with us.
Umami, it turns out, has some science behind it:
- The word and the idea behind umami originated over 100 years ago, named by the Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda.
- Ikeda wanted to understand the chemical makeup of the unusual and powerful flavor of dashi, the stock that’s considered a staple in Japanese cooking.
- Ikeda determined that the molecular structure of one of its primary ingredients was derived from a variety of seaweed, which contained glutamic acid.
- He named this taste umami, which roughly translates to “deliciousness.”
Research over the past 15 years has revealed that the molecular compounds in the amino acid glutamic acid — glutamates — bind to specific receptors on the tongue and are, apparently, what drive this unique flavor to be called the “fifth taste.”3
Glutamic acid is naturally occurring in the human body, and there are numerous foods that naturally contain higher amounts of glutamic acid, such as tomatoes and many cheeses. Any food in which glutamic acid occurs naturally or after cooking, aging, or fermentation is considered umami — that’s where (fermented) fish sauce would fit in.
In powdered form, glutamates combine with sodium and are known as MSG, which, just like sugar or salt, is an actual powder that gives dishes a strong, distinct flavor. Some fish sauce brands on the market do contain added MSG — not good!
But the special flavor of quality fish sauce is not derived from adding powdered glutamic acid or MSG to the recipe. Rather, it’s naturally occurring.4 An example of a man-made MSG is the brand Ac’cent, available in the supermarket’s spice aisle. We recommend you avoid this.
MSG has been vilified over the years — but should it be?
MSG is a compound containing mono (meaning “one”) sodium (or salt) and the amino acid glutamate. The FDA categorizes it as a generally recognized as safe food (GRAS), but many of us view MSG as a sinister chemical additive and carefully search the label so we can avoid it in packaged foods. We avoid restaurants that use MSG when we eat out too.
There’s a difference between naturally occurring MSG and the chemical MSG functioning as a flavoring agent. Ac’cent is the popular seasoning (not naturally occurring) that tries to mimic Nature’s MSG.
MSG has been blamed for physical symptoms, ranging from migraines to paralysis in the extremities. Some people are sensitive to glutamic acid, just as there are people who are sensitive to constituents in many foods.
If you’re sensitive to glutamic acid, then definitely avoid it in both natural and artificial form. That means you would even avoid mushrooms, tomatoes, soybeans, and parmesan cheese. But you may be fine with natural MSG.
Some people are sensitive to products with “liquid aminos.” Bragg’s liquid aminos are made from soybeans, and the company says that there’s very little naturally occurring MSG.
Each of us is unique, and if naturally occurring MSG doesn’t bother you, then enjoy it.
There’s a ridiculous conspiracy theory going around that paints MSG as “dangerous” because Chinese immigrants (known for cooking with MSG) have a secret plot to sicken unsuspecting Americans (their customers) with takeout food. To this day, confusion continues, along with the idea of “MSG as bad,” though studies don’t support this.5
Ironically, most of the MSG produced today is now created by the fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses, the fermentation process that’s also used to make yogurt, vinegar, and even wine.
One fish sauce we love and recommend for flavoring is Son® Fish Sauce. High-quality fermented fish sauce with naturally occurring sodium and glutamate is indeed umami — and that is deliciousness.
- 1. Wastyk HC, Fragiadakis GK, Perelman D, Dahan D, Merrill BD, Yu FB, Topf M, Gonzalez CG, Van Treuren W, Han S, Robinson JL, Elias JE, Sonnenburg ED, Gardner CD, Sonnenburg JL. Gut-microbiota-targeted diets modulate human immune status. Cell. 2021 Aug 5;184(16):4137-4153.e14. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2021.06.019. Epub 2021 Jul 12. PMID: 34256014.
- 2. Taylor BC, Lejzerowicz F, Poirel M, Shaffer JP, Jiang L, Aksenov A, Litwin N, Humphrey G, Martino C, Miller-Montgomery S, Dorrestein PC, Veiga P, Song SJ, McDonald D, Derrien M, Knight R. Consumption of Fermented Foods Is with Systematic Differences in the Gut Microbiome and Metabolome. mSystems. 2020 Mar 17;5(2):e00901-19. doi: 10.1128/mSystems.00901-19. PMID: 32184365; PMCID: PMC7380580.
- 3. Brosnan JT, Brosnan ME. Glutamate: a truly functional amino acid. Amino Acids. 2013 Sep;45(3):413-8. doi: 10.1007/s00726-012-1280-4. Epub 2012 Apr 18. PMID: 22526238.
- 4. PARK, JUNG-NIM & WATANABE, TAKEHIKO & ENDOH, KEN-ICHI & WATANABE, KATSUKO & Abe, Hiroki. (2002). Taste-active components in a Vietnamese fish sauce. Fisheries Science. 68. 913 – 920. 10.1046/j.1444-2906.2002.00510.x.
- 5. Zanfirescu A, Ungurianu A, Tsatsakis AM, et al. A review of the alleged health hazards of monosodium glutamate [published correction appears in Compr Rev Food Sci Food Saf. 2020 Jul;19(4):2330]. Compr Rev Food Sci Food Saf. 2019;18(4):1111-1134. doi:10.1111/1541-4337.12448.