Fish sauces are called different names throughout the world and produced in mostly Asian countries with coast lines having great access to fish. No matter the differences, it can be unanimously identified in any kitchen that uses it by those who recognize the subtle complexity of it’s aroma. The waft of fish sauce is unlike any other, especially heated on a stove or fresh out of a bottle. Nothings gone rotten, quite the opposite — it’s actually been preserved.
How is Fish Sauce Made?
Fish sauce comprises of two simple ingredients: fish and salt. It’s made as a result of alternating layers of these two ingredients inside a wooden or ceramic container. After a fermentation process lasting six months to one year, an amber color liquid is extracted from this mixture and stored in bottles.
Coincidentally, historians have traced similar techniques of making fish sauce to ancient Greece and Rome, called garum. However, present day fish sauce is most commonly recognized in Asian and Southeast Asian cuisines.
While there are different grades of fish sauce, its flavor profile is salty and depending on what fish is used (anchovy, tuna, sardines, etc.) the sauce has an intense (some might call it funky) aroma and taste of the sea. For many Asian households and cooks, it might often be used in place of salt, as a savory flavor enhancement, also known as “umami”, the fifth flavor element after sour, salty, sweet, and bitter.
How is Fish Sauce Used In Cooking?
Fish sauce can be used as a seasoning in foods as well as a condiment for already prepared foods. Because it is very salty, it serves as a good marinade for proteins like meat or tofu.
Often, in southeast Asian cuisine, sugar or a sweetener is added along with the fish sauce to complement the contrasting saltiness.
During the cooking process, fish sauce might be used to season stir fried food or add depth to a soup broth in the most efficient way possible, since the flavor of the fish sauce has already been achieved through months of fermentation.
Alternatively, it can be used as a dressing on fresh dishes like salads or as a dipping sauce.
Because the fish sauce is very strong, when made into a salad dressing or dinner table condiment, it is usually diluted with water and other complimentary flavors are added to make the fish sauce more pleasant to the tongue, like some sweetness (sugar), acidity (lime or vinegar), and spiciness (chilies). If you’ve ever had Thai or Vietnamese food, fish sauce is usually the foundation of building flavor in their cooking techniques. It is as versatile as another common staple most people know and use -soy sauce- except that it is not vegan.
As a Vegan Are There Worthy Substitutes?
So what do you do, if you can’t use fish sauce as your secret ingredient for that umami effect? Well, you can begin looking at other things in the sea for inspiration.
For example, seaweed. It naturally comes from the same source as the fish used in the fish sauce but carries with it, its own subtle and distinctive flavors.
Konbu is a Japanese seaweed that is often used in soup stocks to impart a depth of flavor. Roasted or baked seaweed can also be added to a dish to achieve another level of depth.
Leaving the sea, we can head back to land for mushrooms. Reliably flavorful ones are Shitake and Wood ear, which you can often buy dried year round and store for long periods of time.
You simply rehydrate them by soaking them in water for 5 to 10 minutes, and you can even use that soaking water to cook.
Mushrooms are an essential ingredient in any vegan’s pantry because they provide the range of unique flavors that fish sauce offers – smelly and earthy.
To extract the most flavor from the mushrooms, after rehydrating them, you can sauté them with some onions or leeks and then cook your desired dish from there, be it a stir fry or soup broth.
In terms of an equivalent sauce replacement, soy sauce is considered to some food historians, the older sister to fish sauce, originating in China. It shares a similar creation process as fish sauce via fermentation, but results in a much milder flavor and happens to be vegan.
Soy sauce is made of soy beans, salt and wheat. Much darker in hue but similar in consistency, it has a savory fermented flavor that could most closely replace fish sauce, with the least amount of processed ingredients.
For those with gluten allergies, Tamari would be the gluten free version of soy sauce.
Similar to soy sauce, Miso, a Japanese fermented paste is also made of soybean but preserved with an edible mold, called Koji. Because it is a paste, it doesn’t carry the same consistency as a sauce, but does have a unique fermented taste and smell to fill the void of fish sauce.
For those with a gluten allergy, there are some miso pastes that are not made with any grain, so you’d have to check the ingredient list.
For those who have soy sensitivities, there are even red bean or chickpea miso pastes to experiment with.
In case these options still do not provide enough umami flavors for you (because fish sauce is so intensely flavorful) there is a growing market of vegan or vegetarian fish sauces. They are mostly sold in the Asian super markets and include ingredients like pineapple, mushroom or MSG.
However, it’s important to check the label, because these alternative fish sauces sometimes might be more processed than the real fish sauce or a simpler alternative like soy sauce, which is made up of only a handful of ingredients.
This sauce from Ocean Halo is one of my favorites, and it’s about the price of a standard fish sauce bottle between $4-$6. It’s also contains about half the sodium of a traditional fish sauce.
The quest to create a Vegan fish sauce is not a new thing for many Asians who are Buddhists. They culturally might have grown up with a cuisine that heavily uses fish sauce but are vegetarians. So many have needed to learn to adapt dishes they might have known with alternatives that imitate the look and taste of what fish sauce produces..
When in a pinch or if you want to try making your own vegan fish sauce, you can simmer soy sauce with crushed pineapple, water to dilute the color, salt and mushroom powder.
Because your home made sauce will not have as many natural or artificial food preservatives, its best to use within a week or two and keep stored in the refrigerator.