Is there anything that looks more like an umami bomb than fish sauce? A few drops of this magical trick in a dish can take it from big to spectacular. It’s an amazing secret ingredient to have in your arsenal.
But it can also be mysterious. If you’ve ever been confused about fish sauce, this is for you. In this article, I’ll cover what it is, what brands to buy, how to use it, and most importantly, how to make prepared fish sauce for dipping or dressing at the table.
The roots of my family’s fish sauce run deep. We come from a country village by the ocean. Several times a year, boats came to the docks with the various seasonal seafood for the villagers to prepare them in fish sauce. Each household would have its own barrels of fish sauce. The wealthy village family earned their money by selling industrial quantities of this product, made in large, open-air concrete swimming pools. My mother was famous in the village for her prepared fish sauce which she sold with bowls of noodles and grilled fresh corn on the cob.
What is fish sauce
Fish sauce, sometimes called nước mắm, is a sauce made from seafood fermented in salt, associated with Southeast Asia, especially Vietnam and Thailand. Usually, it is made from anchovy, but it is also made from tiny shrimp, tuna belly, etc. You can make fish sauce from any seafood. You can even make fish sauce at home by packing 3 parts fresh anchovies for 1 part salt in a large pot and leaving it for about a year.
What brand of fish sauce to buy
Of course, no one will do theirs at home. There are a lot of brands of fish sauce out there, and more all the time, so it can be hard to know which one to choose.
The best way to choose is the same as olive oil. There is something similar to the first squeeze for fish sauce which has a superior flavor compared to cheaper products. To find it, look for the words mắm nhĩ On the label. This includes the popular and well-known brand Red Boat, but also other great choices such as Viet Huong, Phu Quoc and my current bottle of the moment, Megachef.
What mom nhi
This is a mini food geeking section that you can skip.
Most Vietnamese know that mam nhi is to fish sauce what extra virgin is to olive oil, but not everyone knows why. The etymology of the phrase was difficult for me to find. There is not even an agreement on the correct spelling. Esoterically, it’s either mắm nhĩ or mắm nhỉ. These are quite small differences, even in Vietnamese, but still not agreed.
On Vietnamese wikipedia, it simply says that mam nhi means ‘appropriate sauce’, but the explanation is laborious and unlikely. My theory, which comes from my father, is that nhĩ is old school slang for drip or drip. Long ago, before mass manufacturing, every family had wooden barrels like a wine barrel with a pouring spout in which they prepared the sauce. When they needed it, they would open their spout and let the sauce run out, and that’s what they called mam nhi.
My father’s theory was that if they planned to sell it, they would pour some of those early juices into the barrel and squeeze it later to stretch the yield, which formed the inferior “regular” fish sauce. Mam nhi was the right thing, only for the family.
Fish sauces to avoid
Over the years, I’ve learned that a lot of people don’t know which brands and styles to avoid. The type of fish sauce we use in most dishes is clear. Avoid those that are opaque unless you know what you are getting yourself into, including – and most importantly – those who say so mắm nêm or mắm ruốc On the label. These will be hotter than the clear stuff. Used correctly, like in our BBH, they are delicious, but too dangerous for the uninitiated.
You should also avoid all supermarket brands like Thai Kitchen, Asian Family, Dynasty, etc. as they are too hot, too salty, and lacking in flavor. When in doubt or in a desert of food, buy Red Boat. It is the safest and most widely available option, and it is what we buy when we are away from Asian supermarkets.
Nuoc mam vs nuoc cham
Sometimes on restaurant menus you will see a reference to nước chấm. Nuoc cham in Vietnamese simply means to dip the sauce, but what it really means is ready-to-eat / table-top / prepared i.e. fish sauce made into a ready-to-eat sauce (i.e. (say for soaking) with garlic, lime and chili peppers. Very few people would use the pure raw sauce from the bottle for anything other than cooking.
In my family and in our part of Vietnam, we don’t say nuoc cham. We just say nuoc mam and expect you to know what type it is depending on the context. At best, it would be called nước mắm chấm, which means dip in the fish sauce. If you cook, you use it right out of the bottle, but at the table, it’s always prepared.
The prepared fish sauce is a dream come true and is almost always a closely guarded family secret. Every Vietnamese family claims that their recipe is the best or that their family makes it the best. Vietnamese kids who grew up in America and can’t cook as well as their moms joke about always having 2 jars in their fridge. When we empty, it’s time to call mom for another pot.
The best prepared fish sauce recipe
When Vietnamese say their mother’s fish sauce is the best, they are talking about the preparation. Heck, when Vietnamese say they dream of fish sauce, they’re also talking about prepared stuff. Few Vietnamese would share this recipe (or could, as most don’t measure or write recipes).
Because I don’t see my parents as often as I would like, I learned from my mother a long time ago to do this. I’ve written and perfected it over the years. The recipe I’m sharing with you today is my own secret recipe, developed from my mom’s version, tailored to mine and Steph’s preferences.
How to make prepared fish sauce
- To crush sugar, garlic and Thai peppers in a mortar and pestle.
- Transfer in a jar, then add the lime, fish sauce and water.
- Let soften in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before serving.
Can you do this without a mortar or pestle?
When my mom needed to do enough for big parties (we’re talking gallons), she would use a food processor or blender. She considered it unsanitary but no one seemed to be complaining. I did it both ways, there is a very clear difference – but not very big. We are talking about 7/10 food processor / chopper and 11/10 mortar and pestle.
Can you use lemons?
You can use any acid you want, even vinegar, but limes are the best. Everything else does not suit me.
Even though this recipe claims to be the best prepared fish sauce you’ve ever made, it’s not the only game in town. We modify it according to the dish. You can add ginger to the duck or the chicken. You can make a more sweetened one to flavor the vermicelli bowls. My mom even makes a version with what is basically a sauce Steph loves for dipping spring rolls, like a peanut-free peanut sauce.
Basically feel free to play around with it to match your taste and dish.
Vietnamese vs Thai fish sauce
In my family, there is no real difference between the Vietnamese and Thai versions, they are interchangeable for us and we use whatever we have on hand.
Fish sauce substitutes
It can be tempting to substitute if you come across a recipe that calls for fish sauce, but you shouldn’t. Likewise, you probably wouldn’t substitute for mustard in a recipe, unless you’re a vegan, you probably don’t need to substitute for it. It’s inexpensive, and there are plenty of recipes you can use it with, besides just using it to enhance the umami profile of literally anything from steak to ragu to bolognese.
Recipes that use fish sauce
If you end up with a lot of fish sauce and don’t know what to do with it, here are some of my favorite recipes that use it:
Recipes that use prepared fish sauce
Fish sauce recipe
A secret family recipe
- 2 tablespoon sugar
- 4 Thai Bird’s Eye Chili more or less, depending on your tolerance to spices
- 2 cloves Garlic
- 2 tablespoon fish sauce mam nhi favorite, like the red boat
- 2 tablespoon lime juice
- 1 Chopped off the water
Fish sauce recipe
Quantity per serving
% Daily Value *
Large 0.01 g0%
Saturated Fat 0.01g0%
Cholesterol 0.01 mg0%
Sodium 696 mg30%
Potassium 57 mg2%
Carbohydrates 8.7 g3%
Protein 0.7 g1%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.