It stinks, it’s made from fermented fish, and you may not be sure how exactly you might use it, or if you even want to use it in your cooking. But I’m here to convince you to give this unusual ingredient a fair chance. You can buy it at the regular grocery in the Asian aisle. I prefer Tiparos brand as the salt is lower than others and the flavor is very good. I buy it in giant bottles at the Asian grocery store. Store it in your cabinet and it lasts nearly forever. Don’t put it in the fridge, or it will form lots of salt crystals and sound like a fish sauce maraca when you pour it. (I’ve learned this from experience!) Fish sauce also replaces the need for any salt in a recipe, just like soy sauce does. So, if the recipe calls for fish sauce, omit the extra pinch of salt you’d usually add to a meal.
At first sniff, fish sauce may smell off-putting to the westerner. I was sitting eating delicious Pad Thai at my favorite Thai restaurant when I overheard a conversation between the restaurant’s owner and a couple of male patrons. One of the gentlemen was complaining to the owner that his food smelled fishy and he was unsure about eating it. The owner is a bold and outspoken lady who knows most of her customers by name and isn’t afraid to stand up for the quality of her husband’s cooking. She demanded the patron try his food before complaining. She left their table, and by the time she returned to check on him, he had cleaned the plate and was already apologizing for complaining.
Fish sauce is a crucial ingredient in making Vietnamese Noodle Bowl Sauce or Nuoc Cham. This dressing tastes amazing on rice noodle salads and can be made up very quickly. Just be sure to remember which bowl is Nuoc Cham and which is your tea! Once, at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant, a woman mistakenly took a big drink of her Nuoc Cham, thinking it was tea. She never could bring herself to eat the dressing again. Try this dressing on a salad made up of rice noodles, chopped romaine, peanuts, cucumber and carrot matchsticks, bean sprouts, and coriander leaves. You can also add grilled meat, shrimp, or spring rolls!
Nuoc Cham recipe:
- 1 garlic clove mashed and minced
- 1/3 of a medium jalapeno or one small one chopped into small pieces
- 1/2 t chili paste or Sriracha chili sauce
- 2/3 C hot water
- 1/6 C sugar
- 1/4 C fish sauce
- 2 T lime juice
Add all of the above ingredients to the hot water- be sure to dissolve the sugar completely. Let sit while you prepare and chop the rest of the noodle bowl ingredients. Pour the desired amount over each serving or put in tiny sauce bowls so each person can add the sauce as they like.
Asian turkey meatballs are cheap, tasty, and easy to make! I made a giant batch of these and brought them to a zoo potluck in my clay tagine. (They work great to keep food warm for get-togethers) They disappeared so quickly and everyone kept complimenting me on how addictive they were. The secret ingredient is fish sauce and lots of coriander leaves. This is a recipe I adapted from Martha Stewart’s Everyday Foods magazine.
Asian Turkey Meatball recipe:
- 3/4 cup Panko crumbs
- 1 package ground turkey meat
- 3 green onions chopped up into tiny rings
- 1/3 cup cilantro (coriander leaves) roughly chopped
- 4 teaspoons fish sauce
- 2-3 teaspoons of rooster/Sriracha hot sauce
- 4 teaspoons sugar
- 1 large garlic clove minced
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Combine these ingredients in a big bowl and form meatballs. Try to be uniform so they cook at the same speed. Brown them in a skillet with a little oil, then put them on a rimmed cookie sheet and bake in the oven for 10-13 minutes. Serve over short grain rice or plain ramen noodles. Garnish with lime wedges, more cilantro, and more Sriracha hot sauce if you love the burn!