Anchovies are an important fish in our worlds' oceans. They play a critical role in the food chain and sustain many species of fish. So why does everybody hate them? In my career as a chef, I've never come across an ingredient so polarizing, even among foodies.
But anchovies are everywhere. You can find them in almost any cuisine except in maybe those from cold far northern places.
Most anchovies are processed in some manner. Usually salt-cured. The filets that are often canned are visually unappealing and have a strong salty fishy flavor. I get it. I don't love them either. So it's no mystery why so many people want them left off their Caesar salad or pizza. Salt-cured anchovies on their own are one of those acquired tastes.
For me, the really important role anchovies play in the kitchen is the depth role. To use a basketball analogy, anchovies are like the sixth man coming off the bench. Not a star player, but critical to the success of many dishes. Anchovies are often a hidden ingredient in many common dishes. Worcesteshire sauce would be quite a different product without anchovies. Maybe you don't like anchovy filets on top of your Caesar salad, but the dressing would be flat and lack dimension without anchovy.
My absolute favorite anchovy product is known simply as fish sauce. If you're a fan of southeast Asian cuisine, you know what I'm talking about. Fish sauce is a pretty basic ingredient. Anchovies fermented with salt and water. But the resulting liquid is a clear, amber-hued complex flavor bomb from heaven. Rich with natural glutamates, fish sauce transcends the humble ingredients from which it's made and becomes a versatile and important flavor-building block.
The amazing thing about fish sauce is that it can be incorporated into many recipes without adding a "fishy" flavor. It's that unsung hero role. Think about the flavors of yam neua (Thai beef salad). Tart, spicy, salty. A perfect example of fish sauce bringing intensity and flavor depth without showing its oceanic roots.
Think of an intensely flavored yellow or green Thai curry -- the flavors of coconut, lime and spices all in harmony. Taste any fish? Probably not. But fish sauce is probably in there, and you probably didn't notice it. That's the beauty of fish sauce. You wouldn't know how important it is until it was missing.
But fish sauce can also play the lead. A perfect example is a classic green papaya salad, made with a dressing that is just a careful modulation of fish sauce, sugar, lime and chiles. In a dish like this, the salty anchovy component is simply playing off the unripe fruit but is powerful enough to shine against the tartness of lime and searing heat of bird's eye chiles.
If you go shopping for fish sauce, the Thai and Vietnamese versions will be the easiest to find. However, fish sauce goes by many names. One example is Colatura, the southern Italian version. There are also Japanese, Korean and Spanish versions.
When shopping for fish sauce in Asian markets, you will likely find popular Thai and Vietnamese brands like Tiparos and 3 Crabs. Both are good choices. I find Thai fish sauces to be saltier, more pungent and overall more assertive than Vietnamese brands -- pretty much mirroring the respective cuisines. Vietnamese fish sauces seem softer, rounder and more nuanced. Some Vietnamese brands can be a bit watery. But remember, we're talking about fish sauce. None of these are timid.
Also read labels carefully as some fish sauces contain other types of seafood. There's even a very expensive Japanese version made from sea urchin. If you're experimenting with Southeast Asian cooking, you might want to try a few and decide which you like best.
If I had to pick one favorite brand, it would be Red Boat from Vietnam. It's an exceptionally high-quality natural product with great flavor concentration. When using Red Boat, I often cut down on the amount of fish sauce because of its strength.
For me, fish sauce is an indispensible work horse. It should be in every pantry.