Fish sauce are ubiquitous even though we may not always be aware of where they pop up – take Worcestershire sauce for example, or the Italian Colatura di Alici. In Asia, these sauces are considered core components in cooking and the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam all have their own versions of this wonderful condiment. There is good reason for their appeal, they impart a umani element to foods, and also replace salt in cooking due to their naturally salty nature. If you look at recipes from Asian cookbooks, you’ll rarely see salt listed as an ingredient and that is because sauces such as fish and soy sauce make the further addition of salt unnecessary.
In case you are not yet familiar with fish sauce, it is that salty, fragrant brown liquid made from fish that is the single, most important flavoring ingredient in Thai cooking (also beloved in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma and the Philippines). Used like salt in western cooking and soy sauce in Chinese cooking, good-quality fish sauce imparts a distinct aroma and flavor all its own. It is considered indispensable in the Thai kitchen.
Fish of Choice
Fish sauce in Thailand is called “nam bplah” or “nam pla” in Thai, literally “fish water”, is the juice from the flesh of the flesh of fish that is extracted by prolonged salting and fermentation. The sauce is made from small fish that would otherwise have little value for consumption. This fish can either be freshwater or saltwater fish, with anchovies being preferred. Any size fish may be used, but anchovies because of their small size, are ideal from an economics perspective as they are of little use as food fish compared to mackerel or sardines. you may find fish sauce from these guys, but it will not be nearly as common.
How its made
For fish sauce to develop a pleasant, fragrant aroma and taste, the fish must be very fresh, as in just got off the boat fresh. Fresh fish does not equate to a fishy smell, so that is a clue to the quality of the sauce. As soon as fishing boats return with their catch, the fish are rinsed and drained, then mixed with sea salt. 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 rocks to keep the fish from floating.
The jars are covered and left in a sunny location for up to a year. Periodically, they are uncovered to air out and exposing the fish to direct, hot sunshine, which accelerates their breakdown into the fish concentrate. Apparently, this step is key to producing a fish sauce of superior quality, giving it a fragrant aroma and a clear, reddish brown color.
When ready, the liquid is removed from the jars, by being siphoned through the layers of fish remains, and any sediment is filtered by a cloth. The fish sauce is allowed to air out in the sun for a couple of weeks to dissipate the strong fish odors. It is then ready for bottling. This is the real deal, 100%, top-grade, genuine fish sauce.
Second and third grade fish sauces are made covering the fish remains with salt water and letting this batch sit for 2-3 months each time, then filtering before bottling. Finally, the fish remains are boiled with salt water, strained 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 to produce larger quantities to sell that still qualify as genuine fish sauce.
What to look for
Given that translation can sometimes produce murky results, and labeling requirements are probably different in Thailand, look at the fish sauce itself. It should be a clear, reddish brown color without any sediments. If the color is a dark or muddy brown, the sauce is likely to be either low grade, or not properly fermented. It also may just be past its shelf life. Good fish sauce should smell pleasant and not something that stings the noise.
Some Recommended Brands
Here are some brands of Thai fish sauce that get mentioned in order of preference, because if you are like me, I get overwhelmed at the options and struggle to discern the qualities of each brand.
High on the List
- Tra Chang (meaning “weighing scale”)
- Golden Boy – (although a lot of people claim to purchase for the cute label) this sauce might also be referred to as Baby brand.
- Ruang Tong
Good in a Pinch
- King Crab
- Three Crabs Brand (generally not recommend as it does not appear to be a naturally fermented fish sauce but is a flavor-enhanced, processed food product, with hydrolyzed wheat protein and fructose are among the ingredients) Also for a Thai brand, being processed in Hong Kong seems suspect. However, I found a few reviewers that like the added fructose claiming it gives a different taste to the sauce.
So here’s what I learned
- good fish sauce has a clear, reddish brown color without sediment – if its dark and muddy – it may not be desirable
- should not be too salty or too fishy smelling, both signs of an old or inferior product – unless you like salty and fishy smelling
- most fish sauces found in the US are inferior to those found in Thailand, and even there it takes some doing to obtain the good stuff
- fish sauce does not need to be refrigerated, but like all good condiments, it does have a shelf life
- fish sauce, for Thai foods, is essential, it is used as a condiment (though rarely unadulterated, generally combined with other ingredients, such as a citrus juice or water)
- most of the reviews agree that price is a differentiator – you get what you pay for
As with most things in life, the fish sauce boils down to personal preference, for example people living in the rural regions, mainly in Northern Thailand prefer a stronger fish flavor. They make their own fish sauce, often skimming off the liquid to use after as short a time as 2 weeks when the fish is still fermenting. They don’t even bother to strain it, enjoying the extra protein and texture that the bits of fish give them.
Want more ideas on what to do with that fish sauce? While I have a shelf of Thai cookbooks and there are several blogs and sites, I have two in mind that I want to share:
SheSimmers is a Thai blogger who now resides in Chicago and offers up recipes that many not all be exclusively Thai. One feature that I really enjoy when reading her blog is that running commentary on what its like to be a Thai expat living in the United States – it certainly helps to put things in perspective.
Tan Kitchen – is a Thai blogger that offers up some delicious recipes and generously shares them with her readers.
One of my favorie dishes is Chicken with Green Chili and Holy Basil or Kai Phad Bai Kaprao from True Thai by Victor Sodsook
I modified this recipe because, while I like food as hot as the next person, the last time I made this dish it was blow the top of your head off hot. It may have been the batch of peppers I used, but I think restraint is the better part of valor here. You can always add more.
3T vegetable oil
6 cloves garlic – crushed or chopped
4 serrano chillies (stemmed cut lengthwise into slivers ~ ¼ c) The recipe called for ½ c.
1 # boneless, skinless chicken breasts cut into ½ ” thick slices
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 T Thai fish sauce (nam pla)
1 T sugar
1 T distilled white vinegar
1 T sweet black soy sauce (see-eu wan)
1 1/2 c loosely packed holy basil (bai kaprao) or fresh mint
Set a wok over medium-high heat. When very hot, add the oil, and swirl or rotate the wok so that the oil coats the sides. Add the garlic and chilies and briefly stir fry, until the garlic is golden and aromatic. Raise the heat to high and add the chicken and onion and stir fry for about 3 minutes. As your stir, make sure to separate the onion into individual slices or rings. Add the fish sauce, sugar, vinegar, and soy sauce. Stir fry until the chicken is tender and cooked through about 2-3 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the basil and cook for only a few seconds, until the basil begins to wilt.
Transfer to a serving platter and serve with jasmine rice.
Hints: If you are not used to cooking with a wok – its a fast paced process so have all your ingredients prepped ahead of time and close at hand.
Overview of regional Thai Cuisine
Thai food is diverse and people have attempted to divide it into five main culinary region. Each region has its own cooking style according to available ingredients and local tastes. Try sampling recipes from the various regions to get a feeling for Thai cooking as a whole. If you’re like me, you will find your culinary instincts relate better to some areas more than others. This, in turn, will give you a clue as to where you might like to travel if ever you have a chance to visit Thailand and taste Thai food at its magnificent source.
The North (including the city of Chiangmai)
Until the late 1800’s, this region of Thailand was the most isolated and consequently the people that lived here developed a style of cooking that is distinct from other regions. If you associate coconut milk with all things Thai, you are in for a surprise with this region – as it has no coconut trees, coconut milk does not play into the food. Fish is rare as the countryside consists of hills, valleys, and farmland. This part of the country is cool and green and is bordered by Burma and Laos, which have left their mark on the cooking of this region. Red meat of all kinds is more common here, along with various vegetable dishes (both raw and cooked). Sticky rice is eaten daily, not necessarily as a dessert (like in other regions), but to accompany these spicy meat dishes.
The Northeast is perhaps the poorest region of Thailand, and is also known as Issaan. Droughts are common, and the the temperature is HOT. Like the north, fish and coconut milk are not readily available for everyday home cooking. When animals are eaten, no part is left to waste. Beef is common, as are chicken, pork, and even boar. Cooking methods include much roasting or broiling. The cuisine of Northeastern Thailand is shared with the cuisine of Laos, as Isaan people are of Lao heritage.
Examples of regional dishes:
- Som tam is a grated papaya salad, pounded with a mortar and pestle. There are three main variations: Som tam poo with salted black crab, and Som tam Thai with peanuts, dried shrimp and palm sugar and Som tam plara with salted gourami fish, white eggplant, fish sauce and long beans.
- Larb is a spicy salad containing meat, onions, chillies, roasted rice powder and garnished with mint.
- Nam Tok is made with beef much like laab, except that the beef is cut into thin strips rather than minced.
- Yam is the common name for any type of sour salad, such as those made with glass noodles, or with seafood.
- Tom saep is a hot & sour soup
- Gai yang is marinated, grilled chicken
- Suea Rong Hai is grilled beef brisket
- Sticky rice
- Nam prik num is a dipping sauce made from roasted eggplant, green chillies, and garlic ground together in a mortar and pestle.
The South (including the Gulf of Thailand)
The region south of the capital forms a long peninsula that joins with Malaysia. A long mountain range parallels the peninsula. Just off the western side of the peninsula lies a plethora of islands, many of them famous (such as Phuket). The coastal area on the eastern, gulf side is also known for fishing as well as the large-scale production of fish sauce, one of the most important ingredients in Thai cooking! With its abundance of fresh fish and coconuts, southern cooking tends to be rich in fish and seafood, including coconut milk-based curries. According to Real Thai author, Nancie McDermott, southern Thais love rote phet, or “intense, sharp flavor” and have a special affinity for sour so they use a lot strong flavored herb that impart these flavors. Indian influences also found in southern Thai cooking as evidenced by the use of turmeric, with mussamun curry being a good example. Desserts consist mainly of tropical fruits, such as mango, pineapple, mangosteen, papaya, and many others.
The Central Plains
Known as one of the great rice bowls of Asia, the central plains make up the heartland of Thailand, consisting of fertile rice farms. Originally a swamp, this region is prone to flooding during monsoon season. However, this abundance of water also allows for easier rice production. From this region, tons of fragrant, jasmine-scented rice are exported around the world each year. The cooking in this region includes rice noodles, usually eaten for lunch or as a snack, Pad Thai anyone? Protein in this region varies from beef to chicken and fish, and desserts made with banana and mango are popular.
Examples of food from the Central Region of Thailand
- Tom yam is a hot & sour soup with meat. With shrimp it is called Tom yam goong, or Tom yam kung with seafood (typically shrimp, squid, fish), Tom yam talae with chicken Tom yam gai.
- Gai Pad Khing is a chicken stir-fried with sliced ginger.
- Tom kha gai is a hot sweet soup with chicken and coconut milk.
- Saté is grilled meat, usually pork or chicken, served with cucumber salad and peanut sauce (actually of Indonesian origin, but now a popular street food in Thailand).
- Red curry (Gaeng Phet lit. ‘hot curry’) – made with copious amounts of dried red chillies
- Green curry (Gaeng khiew-waan) – made with fresh green chillies and flavoured with Thai basil, and chicken or fish meatballs. This dish is one of the spiciest of Thai curries.
- Massaman curry is an Indian style curry, usually made by Thai-Muslims, containing roasted dried spices, such as coriander seed, that are rarely found in other Thai curries.
- Pad prik is a beef stir fried with chili
- Pad kaphrao is a beef, pork or chicken stir fried with Thai holy basil – see recipe above.
- Pad pak ruam is a stir fried combination of vegetables depending on availability and preference.
- Panaeng is a dry curry with beef, chicken, or pork. It includes some roasted dried spices similar to Massaman curry.
- Tod man are deep fried fishcake made from knifefish or shrimp (Tod man kung)
- Boo Jah are crab cakes with pork, garlic, and pepper served with a simple spicy sauce, such as Sriracha sauce, sweet-hot garlic sauce, nahm prik pao (roasted chili paste), or red curry paste and chopped green onions.
- Choo-Chee Plah Ga-Pong is a snapper in choo-chee curry sauce (thick red curry sauce)
It has been said that in Bangkok there are more food establishments per square mile than anywhere else on earth, and I thought San Francisco led in this category – just kidding. The city seems to revolve around food with indoor and outdoor eateries, including “fast food” stalls on most street corners. In Bangkok, food from every region of Thailand is represented. The Chinese presence is strong in Bangkok, as evidenced by a thriving Chinatown. Here one can find Thai versions of sweet-and-sour dishes, stir-fries, noodles, chicken-rice, and various other traditional Chinese meals.
In this region there seems to be two sub-categories: Palace-Style and Home Style. Palace-Style as the name implies is more refined in flavor and presentation than Home-Style cooking. The intricately carved vegetables fruits (often shaped like flowers) that decorate each dish often take as much time to prepare as the dish itself.
According to one food expert Thai desserts in Bangkok are a must try. Here you will find hundreds of cakes, puddings, jellies, and other desserts, most made from a base of coconut, rice, egg, and sugar. As with savory dishes, Thai desserts also display the difference between palace style and home cooking—some are beautifully made, while others appear almost repugnant. One such example is something called Sweet Blackened Jelly, made from the “brown hair” on the outside of coconuts.
Food examples from Wikipedia
When I lived in Washington DC, I attended events at the Thailand Embassy and the Ambassador’s residence. On one occassion they handed out a guide to eating at Thai restaurants in the Washington, DC area. I checked on the embassy website, and got a PDF file listing Thai restaurants for the area (I added the link under Washington, DC). If you live in the DC area, or any place that has a consult for that matter, many of them frequently have events open to the public designed to build community. So if you like food and culture, and I suspect you would not be reading this blog if you did not, look up what may be taking place in your area – a few of the events that come to mind are movie nights, dance lessons, recitals are exhibits.
One event that sticks out for me was being invited to watch the 2006 World Cup finals at the French Embassy. May I say that watching the infamous Zidane head butt at the French Embassy puts a whole new perspective on the event? Not every event is open to the public but you might be surprised at what you can find.