Is there anything that’s more of an umami bomb than fish sauce? A few drops of this magic stuff into a dish can take it from from great to spectacular. It’s an amazing secret ingredient to have in your arsenal.

This is the ultimate guide to fish sauce for anyone who is curious or interested in adding it to your culinary toolkit. In this post, you’ll learn 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.

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My family’s fish sauce roots run deep. We’re from a countryside village by the ocean. Several times a year, boats would come to the docks with the various in-season seafood for the villagers to make fish sauce with. Every household would have their own barrels of fish sauce. The rich family in the village made their money selling industrial quantities of the stuff, made in large open air concrete pools. My mom was famous in the village for her prepared fish sauce which she sold with bowls of noodles and fresh grilled cobs of corn.

What is fish sauce

Fish sauce, sometimes referred to as nước mắm, is a sauce made from fermenting seafood in salt that’s associated with Southeast Asia, especially Vietnam and Thailand. Generally it’s made from anchovies, but it’s also made from tiny shrimp, tuna belly, and more. You can make fish sauce from any seafood. You can even make fish sauce at home by packing 3 parts fresh anchovies to 1 part salt in a large jar and leaving it for a year or so.

megachef fish sauce | www.iamafoodblog.com

What brand of fish sauce to buy

Of course, no one is going to make their own at home. There are a lot of brands of fish sauce out there, and more all the time, so it can get confusing as to which one to choose.

The best way to choose is the same as olive oil. There’s something similar to first press for fish sauce that has a superior flavor over the cheaper stuff. To find it, look for the words mắm nhĩ on the label. This includes the popular and well known Red Boat brand, but it also includes some other great choices such as Viet Huong, Phu Quoc, and our current bottle of the moment, Megachef.

What is mam nhi

Most Vietnamese people 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 a hard one to track down. There’s not even agreement on the correct spelling. Esoterically, it’s either mắm nhĩ or mắm nhỉ. These are pretty small differences, even in Vietnamese, but it’s still not agreed upon.

On Vietnamese wikipedia it merely says that mam nhi means “proper sauce” but the explanation is a little stretched and unlikely. My dad’s theory is that nhĩ is old school slang for drip or drop. Way back in the day, before mass manufacturing, every family would have wooden barrels like a wine barrel with a spout in which they made the sauce. When they needed some, they would open the spout and let some sauce drip out, and that’s what was called mam nhi.

Per my dad’s theory, if they were planning on selling it, they would pour some of those first drippings back into the barrel and later press it to stretch the yield, which formed the inferior “ordinary” fish sauce. Mam nhi was the good stuff, saved for the family.

Avoid this unless you know

Over the years I’ve learned that many people don’t know what brands and styles to avoid. The kind we use in most cooking is clear. Avoid any that are opaque unless you know what you are getting into, including – and especially – any that say mắm nêm or mắm ruốc on the label. These will be more pungent than the clear stuff. Used correctly as in BBH, they’re delicious, but be warned, they can be dangerous for the uninitiated sense of smell.

hue shrimp paste | www.iamafoodblog.com

You should also avoid any supermarket brands, such as Thai Kitchen, Asian Family, Dynasty, etc because they’re overly pungent, over salted, and lacking in flavor. When in doubt or in a food desert, buy Red Boat. It’s the safest, most widely available option, and it’s what we buy when we’re far from Asian supermarkets.

Nuoc mam vs nuoc cham

Sometimes on restaurant menus you’ll see a reference to nước chấm. Nuoc cham in Vietnamese just means dipping sauce, but what it really means is ready-to-eat/table/prepared, aka fish sauce made into a ready to eat sauce (ie, for dipping) with garlic, lime, and chilies. Very few people would use the raw unadulterated sauce out of 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 you’re expected to know which kind is meant based on context. At best, it would be called nước mắm chấm, which means dipping fish sauce. If you are cooking, you use it right out of the bottle, but at the table, it’s always prepared.

Prepared fish sauce is the stuff of dreams, and almost always a jealously guarded family secret. Every Vietnamese family claims their recipe is the best, or that their family makes it the best. Vietnamese kids who have grown up in America and can’t cook as well as their moms joke about always having 2 jars in their fridge. When one goes empty, it’s time to call mom up for another jar.

Prepared fish sauce recipe

When Vietnamese people say their mom’s fish sauce is the best, they mean the prepared stuff. Heck, when Vietnamese people say they dream of fish sauce, they also mean the prepared stuff. Not many Vietnamese people would share this recipe (or could, since most don’t measure or write recipes).

This is a version I learned long ago from my mom and tweaked through the years by me, and best of all, written down.

How to make prepared fish sauce

  1. Crush sugar, garlic, and Thai chilies in a mortar and pestle.
  2. Transfer to a jar, then add lime, fish sauce, and water.
  3. Let mellow in the fridge for at least 30 minutes before enjoying.

Can you make this without a mortar and pestle?

When my mom needs to make enough for large parties (we’re talking gallons) she would use a food processor or blender. She considered it substandard but no one seemed to complain. I’ve made it both ways, there’s a very clear – but not huge – difference. The best tool for the job if you don’t have a mortar and pestle in my opinion is a garlic press.

Bún Bò Xã Ớt - Vietnamese Lemongrass Beef Recipe | www.iamafoodblog.com

Can you use lemons?

You can use any acid you want, even vinegar, but limes are best. Everything else doesn’t taste quite right.

Variations

This simple basic fish sauce is not the only game in town. We modify it to suit the dish. You can add ginger for poultry. You can make a more watered down one to flavor vermicelli bun bowls. Add carrots for color. My mom even makes a meaty version that’s essentially gravy that Steph adores for dipping spring rolls, like a peanut free peanut sauce.

Basically, feel free to play around with it to get it right for both your taste and your dish.

Make better than take out chicken and shrimp peanut free pad Thai right at home. Sweet, salty, savory – pad Thai is universally loved and for good reason. Forget delivery and customize your Pad Thai just the way you like it – this one had no peanuts because around here we do the #peanutfree life. Instead, there are buttery roasted cashews for that nutty crunch. #padthai #recipes #dinner #noodles #padthairecipe #thairecipes

Vietnamese vs Thai fish sauce

In my family, there’s no real difference between the Vietnamese and Thai versions, they are interchangeable to us and we use whatever we have on hand.

Fish sauce substitutes

It may be tempting to substitute if you come across a recipe that requires fish sauce, but you shouldn’t. In the same way you probably wouldn’t substitute mustard in a recipe, unless you’re vegan, you probably don’t need to substitute. It’s cheap and there’s lots of recipes you can use it with, in addition to just using it to boost the umami profile of literally anything from steak to ragu bolognese.

Recipes that use fish sauce

If you end up with a lot of fish sauce and you don’t know what to do with it, here are some of my favorite recipes that use it:

Bún Bò Xã Ớt - Vietnamese Lemongrass Beef Recipe | www.iamafoodblog.com

Recipes that use prepared fish sauce

fish sauce | www.iamafoodblog.com

Fish Sauce Recipe

A secret family recipe
Serves 4
4.79 from 14 votes
Prep Time 5 minutes
Mellowing time 25 minutes
Total Time 30 minutes

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp sugar or less if you prefer it less sweet
  • 2-4 Thai bird’s eye chili sliced, more or less depending on your spice tolerance
  • 2 cloves garlic crushed
  • 2 tbsp fish sauce mam nhi preferred, such as red boat
  • 1.5-2 tbsp lime juice depending on taste
  • 2/3 cup water see notes

Special Equipment

  • mortar and pestle

Instructions

  • In a mortar in pestle, crush sugar, garlic, and half the Thai chilies.
    Bún Bò Xã Ớt - Vietnamese Lemongrass Beef Recipe | www.iamafoodblog.com
  • Transfer to a jar, then add fish sauce. Add 1/2 lime and water. Taste and add lime as needed. Finish with remaining Thai chilies.
    fish sauce | www.iamafoodblog.com
  • Let mellow in the fridge for about 30 minutes before enjoying. Keeps in the fridge for up to a month.
    fish sauce | www.iamafoodblog.com

Notes

The amount of water depends on your intended use. For dipping salad rolls, go with 1/2 cup to 2/3 cup water. For vermicelli bowls, go with 2-3 cup to 1 cup water.

Estimated Nutrition

Nutrition Facts
Fish Sauce Recipe
Amount Per Serving
Calories 33
% Daily Value*
Fat 0.01g0%
Saturated Fat 0.01g0%
Cholesterol 0.01mg0%
Sodium 696mg30%
Potassium 57mg2%
Carbohydrates 8.7g3%
Fiber 0.1g0%
Sugar 6.7g7%
Protein 0.7g1%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.

9 Comments

  1. John Ngyen says:

    5 stars
    Thanks for educating me about fish sauce. I usually buy the opaque liquids in the large 750 ml bottles. I love to cook and I enjoy your recipes and recommendations on fish sauce. Thanks vm

  2. Janice says:

    5 stars
    Thank you SO MUCH for this. I always appreciate the context in your recipes.

    1. Sumi says:

      Are you familiar with the Flor de Garum (premium Spanish Fish Sauce) from Matiz, Espana? I’m wondering if they might be interchangeable. It’s from antiquity, I’m told. Thanks so much.

  3. Joey Russo says:

    5 stars
    Awesome

  4. Cathy says:

    5 stars
    Thank you for sharing this information. I feel so much better prepared!
    I appreciate your thoroughness & clarity very much.

  5. Lovely says:

    Great article!

  6. Don says:

    5 stars
    I have to disagree with you regarding Thai Kitchen fish sauce. I have been eating fish sauce for 55 years. Thai Kitchen can stand up to the best of them but I completely agree with you on those other brands.

    I will recommend Thai Kitchen for those non Asian buyers that rarely use fish sauce and might take more than a year to go through a 24 oz bottle. Plus it is the only decent brand of fish sauce that you can find in a non Asian grocery store.

  7. Lindsay says:

    My secret use for fish sauce is in tuna salad. I learned it on Serious Eats and I’ve never looked back. Trust me and thank me later.

  8. Sabrina says:

    5 stars
    thank you, another great sauce recipe that’s interesting and very exotic to me, much appreciated!

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