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Fish Sauce Characteristics
Before we get into the details, to the "conventional" Western sense, fish sauce smells bad, and the preparation of fermented fish may seem resplusive, but this flavor — not the ingredient — is used in many types of flavorings and cuisines. There is salt and anchovy in Worcestershire sauce and some Italian dishes. I read accounts of chefs using fish sauce in Caesar salad in place of anchovy, or the secret ingredient in bouillabaise. Just as one typically wouldn't chew on a raw garlic clove, one typically wouldn't enjoy a spoonful of fish sauce. Be brave, read on, and learn about flavoring!
Fish sauce is well-loved throughout Southeast Asia, and it was once a great favorite of the Romans. Apicius cited it over 2,000 years ago in his cookbook, calling it "garum" and "liquamen". Garum was produced in salting factories, called "salsamentarii", and sold by "salsarii". It was manufactured by fermenting fish innards, tails, heads, and other small whole fish in salt for several days out in the sun. At this point it is called "liquimen". As this appetizing mass of stuff would ferment and putrefy it oozed a liquid. This liquid is "garum". It was used to season meat, fowl, vegetables, fruit, and even fish. Garum was available to all classes with expensive and inexpensive types and was very popular despite its strong and unpleasant odor.
The taste for it died out in Europe with the end of the Roman civilization — except for natives in that tiny Roman outpost of Great Britain. Worcestershire sauce, of all things, is based on salted anchovies. No wonder you see the occasional bottle of this famous British sauce in Chinese restaurants.
Fish sauce is used like salt in western cooking or soy sauce in Chinese cooking, and good-quality fish sauce imparts a distinct aroma and flavor all its own.
Fish sauce is called "nam pla" in Thailand, "nuoc mam" in Vietnam, "patis" in the Philippines, "shottsuru" in Japan, "ngan-pya-ye" in Burma, "tuk trey" in Cambodia, "nam pa" in Laos, and "yeesui" in China. The name basically means means "fish water". Fish sauce is made from small fish that would otherwise have little value for consumption. This can either be freshwater or saltwater fish, though today, most fish sauce is made from the latter as pollution and dams have drastically reduced the once plentiful supply of freshwater fish in the heartlands of Southeast Asia.
Among marine fish, anchovies and related species of small schooling fish from two to five inches in length are commonly used, as they can be found in bountiful supply in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea. Larger varieties of fish, such as mackerel and sardines, also make good fish sauce, but because they are relatively more expensive due to their value as a food fish, they are seldom used in the commercial production of fish sauce.
As soon as fishing boats return with their catch, the fish are rinsed and drained, then mixed with sea salt #8212;two to three parts fish to one part salt by weight. They are then filled into large earthenware jars, lined on the bottom with a layer of salt, and topped with a layer of salt. A woven bamboo mat is placed over the fish and weighted down with heavy rocks to keep the fish from floating when water inside them are extracted out by the salt and fermentation process.
The jars are covered and left in a sunny location for nine months to a year. From time to time, they are uncovered to air out and to let the fish be exposed to direct, hot sunshine, which helps "digest" the fish and turn them into fluid. The periodic "sunning" produces a fish sauce of superior quality, giving it a fragrant aroma and a clear, reddish brown color.
After enough months have passed, the liquid is removed from the jars, preferably through a spigot on the bottom of the jars, so that it passes through the layers of fish remains; or by siphoning. Any sediments are strained out with a clean cloth. The filtered fish sauce is filled into other clean jars and allowed to air out in the sun for a couple of weeks to dissipate the strong fish odors. It is then ready for bottling. The finished product is 100-percent, top-grade, genuine fish sauce.
This "first draining" or "first pressing" is analogous to Extra Virgin Olive Oil. It is pure, top-grade, and relatively expensive fish sauce, usually reserved for table use, vinaigrettes, or final seasoning. In Vietnam, the "first draining is called nuoc mam nhi, which will be printed on the label. Lower grades are usually used for cooking.
Second and third grade fish sauces are made by adding salt water to cover the fish remains, letting sit for 2-3 months each time, then filtering before bottling. Finally, the fish remains are boiled with salt water, then strained out and discarded, to produce the lowest grade fish sauce; or they may be added to other fish remains from the first fermentation in the process of making second-grade sauce. Because flavor is substantially reduced with each fermentation, top-grade fish sauce is frequently added to the lower grades to improve their flavor. In fact, many manufacturers do not market top-grade, 100-percent fish sauce, saving it instead to mix with second and third grade sauces in order to produce larger quantities to sell that can still qualify as genuine fish sauce.
Because natural fish sauce requires time to make and very fresh, good quality fish, substantial investment is necessary for large-scale production. This has resulted in the proliferation of a number of less-than-pure products. Some are made by the process of hydrolysis in which some kind of enzyme or acid is added to hasten fermentation, while others are made by diluting natural or hydrolyzed fish sauce with salt water flavored and colored with sugar, caramel, monosodium glutamate (MSG), by-products from the production of MSG, saccharin, and other natural or artificial flavorings and coloring.
Before selecting fish sauce, read the list of ingredients. look for fish sauce with a clear, reddish brown color, like the color of good whisky or sherry, without any sediments. If the color is a dark or muddy brown, the sauce is likely to be either a lower grade, or one that is not properly or naturally fermented; it may also have been sitting on the shelf a bit too long.
If the label indicates "Ca Com", this is an indication that only anchovies were used to make the fish sauce and it is a high quality fish sauce for table use. Look for a sign of quality guarantee from the Thai Industrial Standard Institute (TISI) and the Thai FDA code on the label..
In Vietnam, the two towns most noted for their fish sauce are Phu Quoc and Phan Thiet. Phu Quoc produces the best fish sauce, some of which is exported. On the label, the "nhi" signifies the highest quality.
Tiparos is a first grade, premium fish sauce produced in Thailand. Ingredients are anchovy fish, water, salt. In Thailand, Tipparos was the first brand that made it to most people's kitchen (when people stopped making it themselves) and is still very popular. Since Tiparos was the first, you sometimes see a other brand which try to copy their original bottle's shape and mimic them with names like "Taperos" or "Tips".
Squid brand is well-known in Thailand as a "premium", more expensive and more delicious fish sauce. The difference is subtle and might not be detected by the average American consumer, but Squid brand is lighter in color, has less of a fishy smell and is slightly less salty.
Golden Boy is also a top-grade, premium fish sauce.
Three Crabs brand fish sauce is popular in the American market, being mentioned in various culinary circles as "the" premium brand. This is reflected in the market price which is relatively high. The taste is certainly excellent, but whether or not the average consumer would notice a difference between 3 Crabs and Tiparos is somewhat unlikely. Three Crabs is a product of Thailand and processed in Hong Kong. Ingredients are anchovy extract, water, salt, fructose and hydrolyzed wheat protein. Typically fish sauce does not have fructose and hydrolyzed wheat protein, but these ingredients give the sauce a subtle sweet flavor. The fish sauce smell is somewhat muted compared to other brands.
Thai Kitchen brand fish sauce is a lower grade fish sauce. Ingredients are Anchovy extract, salt, pure cane sugar.