Missing Soy Sauce? Try This Instead

Chicken Fried Rice

Between you, me, and the wall, I was in the “ain’t never gonna buy or try something call fish sauce” for many years. Let’s face it: the name doesn’t sound appealing. And, well, you know, fish sauce. I was pretty sure I’d hate it.

I didn’t. It was love at first bit. It became an addiction. The kind of addiction that had me making gratuitous fried rice and dipping sauces just so I could get my fish sauce fix (hello spring rolls!). I started sneaking the stuff into dishes where no fish sauce had been contemplated before (when I added it to my caramelized onion dip, I got raves).

If you’re not already a fish sauce freak, I know what you’re thinking. Let’s get the first thing out of the way: no, it’s not “fishy”. It’s salty and a bit funky — like a light soy sauce with a meaty (and maybe a little, itty bit fishy) flavor.

(Note: if you smell fish sauce on its own, you may find the scent to be weird. The flavor is the key here.)

While I’ve heard rumors that some producers add wheat to their fish sauce, I’ve never encountered this. Made from fish, salt, and sometimes a bit of sweetener, fish sauce is a great gluten-free condiment that is incredibly versatile. I suggest it as a substitute for soy sauce because GF soy sauce can be expensive and sometimes hard to find — fish sauce is inexpensive and easy to find.

Fish sauce, in foodie speak, is the definition of umami…a savory flavor that is often indescribable but satisfying to the tongue. The fermented fish give the sauce a flavor that, depending on the brand and style, ranges from very light to very, very salty. Try different brands to discover your flavor style (Taste of Thai brand is generally available in grocery stores; Tiparos is also a good entry-level brand).

Fish sauce is made from fermented anchovies. As I mentioned, you don’t taste the fish as much as you taste delicious. It’s a key ingredient in Thai and Vietnamese and other Asian foods — it’s essential, for example, to pad Thai. I use it all kinds of ways — I mix it with soy sauce for fried rice; I sneak about a teaspoon or so into guacamole; I toss rice noodles with a fish sauce-based peanut dressing; I amp up flavor of burgers with a bit of fish sauce.

And so on. These days, I buy the largest bottle that can comfortably fit into my refrigerator, and when a dish needs a little something flavor-wise or a good marinade, I reach for the fish sauce. It lasts forever in the fridge (some cooks say refrigerating leads to crystallization of the salt, but I’ve never had that problem; I *do* have a problem with keeping an open bottle in my cupboard because I live in a place where hot weather is common), and, I promise you, you will find uses for it that you never expected.

If you buy your fish sauce at your local grocery store, you’ll get an excellent fish sauce (I started out with Taste of Thai brand from my local store). If you shop at an Asian grocery store or a very well-stocked grocery store, you’ll note many varieties. As your palate develops, you may find you like certain brands over others — the darker the sauce, the stronger the flavor.

Fish sauce is also known as Nam Pla (Thai) or Nuoc Mam (Vietnamese). You may see these names on menus in restaurants.

Still unconvinced? You’re already trying a type of fish sauce when you use Worcestershire sauce. Fermented anchovies form the basis for this sauce as well. (Fact: ancient Romans had a sauce called garum…a form of fish sauce that, now that I think about it, may be the reason I was so hesitant to try the modern version)

Fun Resources:

Tip of the Week

Making Caesar salad? Don’t have anchovies? Use fish sauce instead — but taste frequently to balance flavors, and remember that fish sauce is salty. And, remember, a little fish sauce adds a LOT of flavor. Start small and add a bit more until you’ve achieved the taste you desire.

Menu of the Week

I’ve gone from one hot place to another this week — and I’m craving salads. If I could convince myself that wedge salads had major nutritional value, I’d eat them every day. Instead, I’m looking at salads like Caesar and Nicoise…with an eye on that wedge salad.

My solution? Cut Romaine hearts in half, grill them, borrow some elements from the Nicoise, like lightly seared albacore or good old oil-packed canned or jarred tuna (the traditional anchovies are represented in the Caesar dressing), and add some light Parmesan crisps. And there you have a satisfying meal for a hot evening.

(If you’re still hungry after all that, finish with some grilled stone fruit and vanilla ice cream.)

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2 thoughts on “Missing Soy Sauce? Try This Instead”

  1. I also discovered fish sauce, same brand you mentioned, a couple of years ago prior to my Celiac diagnosis. It is a delicious flavor and I have used it often, maybe not as much as you but now I will expand my horizon so to speak.
    La Choy soy sauce is and apparently always has been Gluten free. I also use a product called Liquid Aminos (I know it sounds like a chemistry set) which is a natural product made from soy without the gluten. You can find it in the grocery store. Pretty good and not as expensive as other soy sauces made “Gluten Free” (with the exception of La Choy).

  2. lee — thank you for your comments (i had no idea that la choy was gluten free). but, yeah, fish sauce is magic. i’ve been seriously cutting back on meat products for the past year, but can’t quit my fish sauce. i love soy sauce / tamari, but sometimes it’s too intense. fish sauce, it’s always just right!

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