Key Points

Learn how fish sauce is made and how to use it

 

Traditional Vietnamese cooking features fresh ingredients while using fish sauce to enhance exposing flavors. Fish sauce is a staple condiment in the country.

 

fish sauce bottle icon Traditional Vietnamese Fish Sauce

In ancient times, Vietnamese fishing boats were too small to venture out to the deep ocean waters to catch big fish. So they stayed close to the shoreline with basic nets collecting smaller fish, much of what they caught were black anchovies. 

To preserve the fresh catch during the fishing season, fishermen layered sea salt between the anchovies. Back on land, the salted anchovies are transferred to large wooden barrels for up to a 12-month aging process. During which the liquid dripped from the spigot will be poured back into the barrel.

The fermented anchovies are slowly pressed to yield the salty and fishy sauce. A good fish sauce is one that’s drawn directly from the first press of a single vat and is unmixed with other batches and not diluted with water. 

Phu Quoc, an island off the southwest coast of Vietnam, is believed to be the home of black anchovy, producing the best fish sauce in the country. Pure fish sauce from this island features a touch of sweetness, a mineral flavor, and caramel notes. 

 

Making A Standard Vietnamese Dipping Sauce

From the same fish sauce extracted from anchovies, there are endless variances of dipping sauces that can be made for various dishes. They are set apart by their flavors and level of saltiness. 

Fish sauce is the most common condiment when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine. It’s used to add flavor and texture to a dish, such as bun cha, banh xeo, and banh cuon. Instead of applying it while cooking like many sauces, the food is typically placed or dipped into the sauce.

By combining with sugar, water, rice vinegar, garlic, chili, fresh lime, or kumquat, the dipping sauce, though still salty, has a lighter taste than its original fish sauce. Its flavor is commonly sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. 

Akin to what olive oil is to Italian culture and soy sauce is to China and Japan, fish sauce is used in everyday cooking in Vietnam, often as a replacement for salt. It is mixed in stir-fries, added to stews, and used to caramelize vegetables and meat for clay-pot dishes.

You will often find a small bowl of fish sauce on your table in Vietnam. You can choose to add it in as a seasoning or use it as a dipping sauce. 

By Leslie Radford