Asian Condiment Low-down: Nothing Fishy

It’s Foodie Tuesday!

Fish Sauce. Photo by Nathalie Mariano.This pretty, amber-colored liquid is known by many names: in the Philippines, where I live, it is called patis; in Thailand, it’s called nam pla; in Vietnam, nuoc nam. Fish sauce is one of those mainstays in every East and Southeast Asian kitchen’s arsenal of seasonings, no matter what country you are in. It is used to flavor a whole lot of Asian recipes, often taking the place of salt.

Fish sauce is made by fermenting fish and salt and pressing the juices out. There’s an art to this, one which the Vietnamese and the Thai take very, very seriously. Some families have their own recipes which have subtle differences in flavor and aroma, based on the kind of fish used, the kind of wood used in the barrel where they are fermented, the length of fermentation time, as well as some other environmental factors. In the Philippines there’s generally only one kind of patis, but in these other two countries, fish sauces are classified into different grades of quality, and these grades are placed prominently on the labels.

Now to those of you who might wrinkle your nose at the idea of defiling your own kitchen with this funky flavoring, so let me just say that:

  1. It is not meant to be consumed as it is. I would not personally eat chilies as just chilies. But that doesn’t mean that I would ban them from the food I make. In fact I would add them to a lot of dishes to add some zing to them. Same goes for fish sauce. It marries into the flavors of a dish and creates a comparatively subtle layer of exotic salty-umami.
  2. It does have an intense taste and aroma, but the dishes that call for it don’t use a lot of it. A little goes a long way.


Try using patis as a component of this wonderful salty, sweet, sour, spicy dipping sauce and dressing. I use this to make Vietnamese Goi Ga, a cabbage and chicken salad. I also use it to dress cold noodle salads, or as a dip for spring rolls, grilled fish and meats. I don’t have a recipe, but you may begin by mixing together 1 part fish sauce, 1 part brown sugar, and 1 part lime juice. Then adjust the ingredients to achieve your desired balance of salty, sour, and sweet. Then add chopped chilies to achieve your desired heat. I also like to add a drizzle of sesame oil for some smoky nuttiness.

The ingredients for Vietnamese Dressing. Photo by Nathalie Mariano.

The sauce ingredients (clockwise from top): fish sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil, chilies, calamondin or calamansi and dayap, the local lime. Regular limes are not easily available where I am, so I use a combination of dayap (which has beautiful aroma but not a lot of juice) and calamansi (for the sourness and the juice).

Goi Ga Ingredients. Photo by Nathalie MarianoA beautiful application for this dressing is the Vietnamese Chicken and Cabbage Salad, Goi Ga.

Chinese cabbage, shredded
Steamed chicken breast, shredded
Mint leaves and/or cilantro, torn

You may also add:
Chopped peanuts
Bean sprouts
Julienned carrots

Toss the ingredients together in the dressing. Pile on a plate and enjoy.

All images in this post by Nathalie Mariano.

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