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Fish sauce is a complex tasting flavoring common to most Southeast Asian cuisines. Here in the Philippines, fish sauce –– or patis, as we call it -– is used most often to enhance the flavor or soups and broths. Not only does it work as a good marinade, but it’s also a dipping sauce people use for some meats and seafood. Its taste is part sweet, part salty, part umami, and all delicious.
Depending on what country you’re from, fish sauce comes in many different names.
- In the Philippines, we know fish sauce as patis.
- But people in Thailand or Laos know it as nam pla.
- Cambodians call this sauce teuk trei,
- and Vietnamese people call it nuoc mam.
- In Indonesia, it’s ketjap ikan …
- and if you’re in Burma, you’d be looking for something called ngan bya yay.
But whatever you call it, the product you get is the same –– a delicious, savory sauce for a myriad of meals.
Where does it come from?
Yes, fish sauce may be common in Asian dishes. But did you know it has origins in Ancient Greece? Early records from the 4th to 3rd century BCE saw Greeks fermenting a fish called garos.
Later on, Romans made a similar sauce called garum, made from the guts of fish that they typically wasted. By salting fish innards and leaving them to ferment for months, Romans unknowingly created a sauce that the rest of the world would soon enjoy. One philosopher, Pliny the Elder, even called fish sauce “an exquisite liquid.” Fish sauce isn’t very common in modern day Italian cooking, but the sauce colatura di alici is still popular today. Made with anchovies and salt, it’s practically garum’s youngest descendant.
Others say, however, that fish sauce, like soy sauce, originated in China. This was when people in the Zhou dynasty fermented fish with a combination of soybeans and salt. In later dynasties, they took fish out of the equation entirely, giving rise to what we know now as soy sauce. Fish sauce was still produced, but not as much with soy sauce gaining traction.
But despite fish sauce’s faltering popularity in China, its usage in Southeast Asian nations began to rise. Like how Northeast Asian countries began to monopolize soy sauce use, countries like Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia began incorporating fish sauce more and more into their cuisine.
What’s is it anyway?
If it weren’t obvious enough from its name alone, fish sauce’s key ingredient is –– you guessed it –– fish. Fermented fish, to be exact; most of that salty, fishy flavor comes from oily fish like anchovies or galunggong.
The process of making fish sauce can be quite long precisely because of fermentation. Some companies have found ways to speed up the fermentation process without having to sacrifice the taste. However, many also still keep to the traditional way of producing the condiment –– by taking their time.
This is the reason there are different “classes” or “grades” of fish sauce in the market. More high quality patis is prepared from small fish like anchovies and small shrimps. For some Filipino manufacturers, patis is actually the offshoot or by product of another popular condiment –– bagoong. The best patis has the clearest liquid, with an almost golden color.
It takes about 9 to 12 months for your sauce to finally achieve its fullest, best flavor. Sometimes the jars where the fish are being kept are left out to soak up the sunlight. The warm sunlight also helps in giving fish sauce its darker color and smell you could recognize anywhere.
It’s the combination of fermented fish and sunlight that lends that classic pungent smell to this type of sauce. A lot of people tend to shy away from fish sauce because of this very reason. But like many cases in life, the greater risk reaps the greater reward. By looking past fish sauce’s distinct odor, you get an absolutely delicious addition to your kitchen pantry and dining table.
You can learn more about how to make fish sauce in this article.
What makes it different from soy sauce, oyster sauce, and Worcestershire sauce?
As mentioned earlier, soy sauce became the more popular condiment in Northeast Asian countries. Made with fermented soybeans and wheat, many use soy sauce (or toyo) as a vegan substitute for patis. Both give dishes that umami flavor that you can find in a lot of different meals.
Because soy sauce doesn’t have fermented fish as an ingredient, it lacks that strong smell we typically associate with patis. It’s also a lot darker in color, with fish sauce bearing more of an apple juice-like resemblance.
Fish sauce is arguably more similar to oyster sauce then soy sauce is. Oyster sauce definitely matches the distinct umami flavor patis brings a little bit more than toyo can. However, it still can’t match that distinct aroma fish sauce can provide.
Another one of their biggest differences lies in their consistencies. Oyster sauce is thicker, and wouldn’t be good for dishes that rely on patis’ thin consistency. It also tastes sweeter than fish sauce, which is predominantly salty.
Popular in England, Worcestershire Sauce is often a viable substitute for fish sauce. The sauce is made with several ingredients, including but not limited to anchovies, molasses, tamarind, and vinegar. Like fish sauce, it is also fermented for a long time, delivering that umami flavor.
Still, Worcestershire Sauce’s sodium content remains much lower than that of fish sauce. Because of its abundance of ingredients, the flavor profile of Worcestershire Sauce may end up quite differently, too.
Is there vegan version?
Some stores and brands offer vegetarian and vegan friendly alternatives for fish sauce. One common ingredient in these alternatives would be either mushrooms or dulse. Dulse is a type of seaweed that can also pass as a snack. When mixed together with sea salt and tamari, you get that same umami flavor fish sauce has –– sans the fish!
If you can’t find any vegan fish sauce in your local market, there are several recipes online that are quick and easy. You’ll have your own vegan fish sauce at home in no time!
What can you cook with it?
Brands like Barrio Fiesta and Marca Piña help bring the patis experience to your household. Oftentimes, we use a combination of fish sauce and calamansi to add a more flavorful bite to our dishes. If you want that extra spice, adding sili (or chili peppers) will also do the trick.
But we’re so used to seeing fish sauce as a dip that we often forget it can be used in other ways, too. Fish sauce is not only valuable after you’ve served food; you can also use it during the cooking process! In the Philippines, the word pinatisan refers to the process of cooking meat in patis and other ingredients. Those other ingredients are typically garlic, ginger, onion, pepper, and bay leaves. This is similar to binagoongan, which refers to mixing ingredients in shrimp paste.
Dishes like fried chicken and pork can be cooked with fish sauce for that special umami flavor. You can even give the classic adobo a twist by cooking it in fish sauce instead of the usual soy sauce marinade.
Fish sauce also works well in savoury fried rice dishes, curries, and –– surprisingly enough –– egg dishes! When cooking certain soups and stews, fish sauce works as a great substitute for salt. Its recognizable flavor adds another layer of complexity to the taste of many dishes, like sinigang and tinola.
Is fish sauce healthy?
Fish sauce has its own nutritious benefits apart from being a tasty condiment. As mentioned prior, fish sauce can be a substitute for salt in dishes –– and a healthier one at that.
A study by the Journal of Food Science showed that using fish sauce reduced sodium chloride levels by, at most, 25%. Even with those levels reduced, one still gets that briny, umami flavor from the patis. Despite its salty taste and sodium content, fish sauce has helped lower high blood pressure. This is because its enzymes are similar to ACE inhibitor medications’, which help with blood pressure and vein relaxation. Its enzymes also assist in insulin production, making it helpful for diabetics.
Including fish sauce in your diet means also having a good source of both protein and calcium. The process of fermentation helps produce enzymes in fish sauce that improve our immune system. Illnesses like arthritis and others related to inflammation can also be soothed by patis.
Still, when consumed in high quantities, fish sauce can prove to be detrimental to your health. Despite it lessening sodium chloride levels, patis still comes with high salt content. One tablespoon of fish sauce is enough for your entire day’s worth of recommended salt intake.
When eaten in excess, what was initially helpful and delicious might turn harmful … so make sure to consume your fish sauce wisely!
Fish sauce is a valuable part of not just Filipino kitchens, but Southeast Asian cuisines as a whole. Its smell may be off putting at first, but it would be unwise to write it off so quickly. With its vast repertoire of dishes, it is one of the most delicious, versatile condiments one could find. No matter what you call it in your native tongue, patis is the perfect companion in any kitchen.
Let us know what you like to eat with your patis!