I knew nothing about fish sauce before I began enjoying Vietnamese food. Back then if you suggested one day this salty, funky fermented liquid would be something I cooked with all the time, I wouldn’t have believed you.
In Vietnam, fish sauce is used both for cooking and for dips. The fish sauce I saw in Hanoi all had a numerical rating on the bottle, which refers to the nitrogen level. If I understand it correctly, the amount of nitrogen in a litre of fish sauce is a measure of the amount of protein in the sauce. I was told by a cooking school chef that the standard fish sauce for both cooking and dips in Vietnam is designated as 40. Fish sauce with a higher number would be more intense. A low number is an indicator of poor quality.
Back in Canada, the first time I shopped for fish sauce at my local Asian market, none of the brands had a number. The best fish sauce is basically fermented anchovies and salt. Some of the brands in my local market have added MSG and in some cases also sugar, ingredients used to jazz up inferior sauce.
I was able to find Red Boat fish sauce online at a local health food place that deals online. It’s more expensive than any of the ones at my local market, but it has no additives and it has a numerical rating of 40, just what I was looking for. Here’s the blub on the bottle:
A national treasure of Vietnam, Red Boat is made using traditional chemical-free fermentation methods, a unique two hundred year-old artisanal process using only the freshest ca com (black anchovy), salted minutes after leaving the sea then aged for over a year in traditional wooden barrels. Red Boat anchovies are sourced exclusively from the crystal clear waters off the Phu Quoc island archipelago. Red Boat is pure, 100% all natural first press “extra virgin” Vietnamese fish sauce. made from only two ingredients it is free from added water, MSG and preservatives.
Everywhere I visited in Vietnam I ate food which came with a standard dipping sauce, made with fish sauce, water, garlic, chilies, sugar, vinegar and lime juice. However it is also terrific as a marinade or in just about anything you’re cooking. In short, fish sauce makes everything taste better by intensifying that taste known as umami in anything. When you cook with fish sauce, it doesn’t make what you’re cooking taste fishy, it just makes it taste better.
At some point, I tried a little fish sauce in the braising liquid of some kind of meat I was cooking, and it rocked. I also discovered it improves soup too. You can also use a bit in salad dressing and it’s super good. I even add a tiny bit to my eggs for an omelet. Along the way, fish sauce has become an essential in my kitchen.