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How to Use Fish Sauce

When Portland restauranteur and chef Andy Ricker recently announced that most of his Pok Pok eateries would be closing, the sky darkened. The Thai and Southeast Asian-inspired restaurant had become something of an American empire, with popular locations on either coast.

It was an especially hard blow for fish sauce enthusiasts. Pok Pok’s most iconic dish is chicken wings made with the Asian-born distillate. The meaty, flavorful wings captured a devout following not unlike a Shake Shack burger or brisket from Franklin Barbecue. And they wouldn’t have launched the franchise to the American culinary foreground without good fish sauce.

Which begs the question: How else can you harness the unique umami notes inherent to fish sauce? The complex condiment primarily made from anchovies goes way, way back and just about every major Asian country has its own take on the stuff. The fermented and highly aromatic liquid is available at most supermarkets but it’s advised to peruse a specialty store or Asian import store to get your hands on higher-end, more complex versions.

Pok Pok Fish Sauce Wings Image used with permission by copyright holder

While fish sauce no doubt makes chicken wings way more interesting, we’re here to tell you that the uses extend way beyond poultry. Being such a popular Asian ingredient, there are scores of options. Red Boat has become quite popular and gets high marks from many of the leading culinary outlets. We also suggest Megachef and Dragon’s Cuisine.

From pasta sauces to cocktails, there are many good homes for the dynamic culinary wanderer otherwise known as fish sauce.

Other Sauces

Fish sauce can do wonders to a variety of other fellow liquids. For a more memorable salad, use it like a vinaigrette, combining with some balsamic and mixing into the greens. Those who’ve imparted brininess to their red pasta sauces by way of diced olives or anchovies will appreciate what a little fish sauce can do. It’s a great way to take your favorite Bolognese south to Sicily and open it up to not just meatballs, but the possibility of accompanying seafood.

Try adding it liberally to store bought curry mixes or even in smaller portions in guacamole or salsa. Shoot, try a bit mixed into your favorite barbecue sauce or drizzled over some coleslaw or roasted potatoes. Next time you’re working with shellfish, oysters especially, make sure you have some fish sauce at the ready for dipping. 

Vegetables

The real heroics occur around vegetables. Fish sauce can turn boring old cabbage or bok choy into headliners. And because it’s such an involved condiment, you rarely need anything else. Simply steam or sautée something like kale or collard greens and add a little fish sauce to taste. The flavor profile of fish sauce goes particularly well with earthier items like mushrooms, especially shiitake and bigger, grill-able options like portobello.

Substitute fish sauce in places you’d typically use soy sauce, like dippers for salad rolls or edamame. It pairs beautifully with bitterness of radicchio and savory notes of fresh parmesan. Try a little worked into roasted butternut squash or zucchini.

Cocktails

Fish sauce is potent stuff but in the right cocktail, it can settle in to its surroundings beautifully. A good Bloody Mary is a great place to start, a strong and savory drink built around complementary flavors like tomato and pepper. Following the tomato theme, try a healthy drizzle mixed into your next Michelada and throw some fresh cilantro and lime in the mix. It’s also fun as a whisky chaser to use in place of a pickle back.

It’s also right at home with many agave-based spirits like tequila and mezcal. There is no shortage of margarita recipes out there so instead focus on angles that might work better with Asian cooking. Think watermelon, lemongrass, and tropical fruit flavors as you experiment. Fish sauce also makes for a nice savory topper to a citrusy drink like the Paloma. 

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Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
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