Rotting food is normally something that we see as a big negative in North American culture but you would be amazed at how many things we eat every day that are in some stage of rot.
Bacteria, yeast, fungus are all words that evoke a negative visceral reaction, though when it comes to the food we love these microbes are some of our greatest allies. Bananas used in baking should be black as the rotting process concentrates sugar. Beef is dry aged for between two and four weeks at controlled temperatures so that tenderizing and flavour enhancing chemical reactions can occur in the meat. The act of fermentation in beer and wine is another controlled way of rotting a food item to create a new product. With that said, there is something different and distinct about rotting fish and how off-putting it’s aroma can be to the North American nose and palate. People will routinely ask if the fish they are about to eat is fishy. It’s a special kind of North American insanity that not only doesn’t want to know where their food comes from but actively dislikes a type of food for tasting and smelling the way it’s supposed to taste and smell.
Fish sauce is an immensely popular product in Asia and because of Asian immigration to Canada and the United States it has become a common product carried in most major grocery stores. This pungent, black liquid may smell horrible but it is the perfect delivery system for Umami*. Because fish sauce is such a concentrated source of Umami flavour, the sauce is used in tons of different ways. Weather it’s in a soup stock, a dipping sauce, a marinade or even Kim Chi, fish sauce is one of the most versatile ingredients in asian cuisine.
Fish sauce is a very simple blend of pressed raw or dried fish, salt, and water. The sauce is then fermented to varying degrees depending on what it will be used for and where it comes from. The variety of fish and can vary depending on where the fish sauce originates. Like with most food around the world(North America notwithstanding) regional variations on fish sauce are very common. Japanese Fish sauce is normally made from dried squid and sardine and it’s used as a stock base while Thai fish sauce contains raw anchovy and is used more in sauces. Malay fish sauce is made from the paste of tiny krill** which have been crushed and compressed.
The asians do not get to totally stake a claim to fish sauce. The ancient Romans actually had a similar preparation called Garum, and even earlier the Ancient Greeks used a fish sauce and the original formulation of the ubiquitous British Worcestershire sauce used fermented anchovy as one of it’s main flavouring ingredients.
So if you’ve not been sold on the five hundred some odd words I’ve written so far about a sauce made out of rotten fish, maybe I can convince you of it’s merits by potentially ruining dishes you love by hipping you to how the contain fish sauce.
1. Pho: the amazingly deep soulful broth that you find in Pho is in part because of the powerful flavour of fish sauce.
2. Kim Chi: Fish sauce is the main ingredient in this Korean fermented cabbage condiment.
3. Miso Soup: Dashi the base stock of Miso Soup is made from katsuobushi which is smoked/dried/fermented/aged Bonito.
Sometimes things that sound gross, look gross and even smell gross can be amazingly flavourful. Approaching food with an open mind is the best way to enjoy something that is totally different and possibly something you will enjoy for the rest of your life.
*If you haven’t read much of this blog Umami is the 5th flavour that you never learned about in high school biology. Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter and Umami. Umami is a savoury flavour produced by a chemical group called glutamates which are found most prominently in Asian cuisine but we also see it in more familiar ingredients like parmigiano reggiano, tomato paste and mushrooms.
**Tiny shrimp-like crustaceans.