Fish sauce is a basic ingredient of Asian cooking – especially Thai. It has a rich, almost pungent, salty taste and is used either as a marinade, seasoning or condiment. Most Asian dishes are not complete without it.
There is nothing quite like the stink of fish sauce hitting a hot pan. Ok…maybe one thing… It smells like freshly fertilized grass baking in the hot sun. (I’m not making this sound appetizing, am I?)
Not to worry – the stink only lasts for a couple of minutes and it doesn’t taste the way it smells at all!
I’m too in love with fish sauce to let its manufacturing process put me off.
Fresh fish, normally anchovies, are mixed with sea salt and placed in tanks, barrels or earthenware pots. Often, the fish is weighted down with a bamboo mat and heavy rocks, so that it doesn’t float to the top of the tank/barrel.
The tanks/barrels are put outside in the sun for 12-18 months to allow the fish to ferment and break down. It is opened up a couple of times during the year to let in fresh air and to expose the fish to direct sunlight. This ‘sunning’ gives it a strong aroma and clear, reddish colour.
The salt content in the mixture is high enough (usually 27%) so that no bacteria can grow in the tanks. This is an ancient practice that still proves to be the best way of producing the highest quality fish sauce.
When the fermentation is complete and the fish is totally broken down, the dark liquid will have lifted to the top. It is removed either by siphoning it out of the tank, or the barrel’s contents are filtered through a clean cloth to get rid of any bits and pieces.
The liquid is poured into clean barrels and left open outside for a couple of weeks to air out some of the strong fish odours.
Finally, it’s bottled and sold.
Before you decide you never want to use fish sauce again, here’s a surprising fact: Worcestershire sauce is made with some of the same ingredients and with a similar fermentation process!
But that’s a topic for another post!