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Learning to Love Fish Sauce

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Raichlen is director of Cooking in Paradise, a cooking school in St. Barths.

Nuoc mam almost wrecked my marriage. My wife decided she hated it without ever tasting it, because this sauce, which is a cornerstone of Southeast Asian cooking, is made by letting fish decompose in brine. The fish doesn’t actually rot , mind you--the brine preserves it from microbes and the decomposition is due to enzymes naturally occuring in its flesh--but the whole notion is one that many Americans, not just my wife, find off-putting.

I became a fish sauce fan at the Rim Sala Cooking School at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. I learned how a few drops of this dark, salty liquid can add depth and flavor to a myriad of dishes, even salads. I discovered that, despite its primary ingredient, fish sauce isn’t really fishy, especially not when combined with other flavorings like garlic, chiles and lemon grass.

So when my wife informed me she wouldn’t eat anything containing even one drop of fish sauce, I figured I could fool her. The moment she tasted my Nuoc Cham (a sweet, sour, garlicky dip made with fish sauce), I was sure she’d become a believer. She liked the dip well enough--until she spied the open bottle of fish sauce in the kitchen. It took her a long time to try Southeast Asian cooking again.

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Whether called nuoc mam in Vietnam, nam pla in Thailand, truk trey in Kampuchea or patis in the Philippines, the sauce is always a salty, clear brown liquid. In Southeast Asia it plays the role that soy sauce plays in China and salt does in the West. It is used both as a cooking ingredient and a table sauce.

Its pungent, cheesy smell does take some getting used to. (Then again, so does the odor of ripe Gorgonzola or Camembert.) It has a salty, meaty flavor that reminds me of the English flavorings Bovril and Marmite (the former a beef extract, the latter a yeast spread). A good grade of nuoc mam is actually milder-tasting than soy sauce.

Fish sauce is made by packing anchovies or other small fish in barrels or clay jars with salt and water. A weight is placed on top to keep the fish submerged, and the mixture is left to cure in the hot tropical sun. After three months, a clear pungent amber liquid is drained off the bottom of the barrel. This is the choicest grade of fish sauce, and it is used exclusively as a table sauce.

To make a less expensive commercial grade, the amber liquid is poured back over the fish and allowed to ferment for another three months. Darker, saltier and more strongly flavored, this type of fish sauce is used mainly for cooking.

“When nuoc mam is made in small amounts for family use, the clay jar is sealed airtight and buried until the fermenting process is complete,” writes Barbara Cohen in “The Vietnam Guidebook” (Harper & Row, 1990). “With aging, the fierce ammoniacal odors mellow and, as with brandy, the flavor improves.”

This procedure may sound alien to Western culinary practices, but up to 1,500 years ago or so, fish sauce was a staple of southern European cooking. The Romans called it liquamen , the Greeks called it garos and both used it much as we use salt.

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Closer to home and to modern taste is Worcestershire sauce, one of whose primary flavorings is anchovies; a Southeast Asian would consider it a sweet-sour fish sauce enhanced with soy sauce, garlic and spices. And few of us would think twice about the anchovy in a Caesar salad. Fish sauce is quite nutritious, being loaded with protein and the B vitamins.

Not all fish sauces are equal, however. The best supposedly comes from the island of Phu Quoc in Vietnam. Even Thai manufacturers use the words Phu Quoc to designate their top grade of fish sauce. Other words to look for on the label are nhi (Vietnamese for “prime”) and ca com (made only with anchovies).

The fish sauce sold in glass bottles is generally superior to the ones in plastic. Filipino and Chinese fish sauces are sometimes made with fish other than anchovies. First-time users should insist on a pure anchovy fish sauce from Thailand or Vietnam.

Fish sauce can be found in Asian markets, gourmet shops and in the exotic foods sections of many supermarkets. According to Bruce Cost, author of “Asian Ingredients” (Morrow, 1988), top brands available in the United States include Flying Lion Brand Phu Quoc, Viet Huong Three Crabs Brand, and Squid Brand from the Thai Fishsauce Co. A 24-ounce bottle should cost less than $5 and will last for months, if not years. Fish sauce does not need to be refrigerated.

Many Westerners encounter fish sauce for the first time in the form of Nuoc Cham , a dip made with lime juice, sugar and garlic, served in Vietnamese restaurants. Just about everything can be dipped in Nuoc Cham , from spring rolls to roast squab to salads. But it’s hard to imagine a Southeast Asian soup, stew, stir-fry or even salad that doesn’t contain fish sauce in some way or other. Its salty, tangy flavor goes equally well with seafood, poultry and meat.

And don’t stop there. Fish sauce can lend character to many Western dishes. I like to add a few spoonfuls to chowder, gumbo and bouillabaisse. Taking a cue from Vietnamese pho (noodle soup), I spike my chicken soup with a splash of fish sauce. A few drops lend oomph to a Caesar salad.

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But on the basis of my married experience, I suggest you keep the bottle hidden from any skeptics who wander into the kitchen.

This sweet-sour-salty sauce is indispensable at the Vietnamese table. Use it as a dip for fried foods or even as a dressing for salads.

NUOC CHAM

(Vietnamese Dipping Sauce)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 small shallot, minced

1 fresh hot chile, seeded and minced (for hotter sauce, leave seeds in)

2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 cup fish sauce

1/4 cup lime juice

3 tablespoons rice vinegar

3 to 4 tablespoons water

1 carrot, finely shredded, optional

Combine garlic, shallot, chile and sugar in mortar and pestle and pound to paste. Stir in fish sauce, lime juice, rice vinegar and water. When sugar is completely dissolved, stir in carrot.

Or combine all ingredients in jar with tight-fitting lid and shake until blended. Makes 3/4 cup.

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