Condiment Essentials: What You Need to Know About Fish Sauce

Fish Sauce Fish sauce, as the name suggests is a sauce made from fish. It is known for its funky smell. But beyond the offending odor, it gives savory dishes a bit of saltiness, tang, and sophisticated seafood flavors. Most countries in the Southeast Asia use fish sauce in probably all types of dishes. Well, except desserts.

The Thai and Vietnamese in particular, have a marked penchant in fish sauce. In Vietnam, fish sauce is called “NUOC MAM” while it is called “NAM PLA” in Thailand. Go to any Vietnamese or Thai household or eating establishment and you’re likely to find a bottle of fish sauce on the table. They also commonly use this to flavor steamed rice or drizzle over Pad Thai.

Additionally, the Thais and Vietnamese also use the condiment in marinades, soups, stews, dipping sauce and every savory dish imaginable. Put quite simply; they use fish sauce in place of salt, soy sauce, and pepper. Most dishes are never complete without a degree of fish sauce in it.

Making Fish Sauce: The Process

Fish Sauce factory


Although the fish sauce is manufactured in different parts of the Southeast Asian regions, the method of production is very similar. All of them work with the principle of fermentation.

The fish species of choice is anchovy, but some manufacturers do use other types of fish and seafood to create a fish sauce. Freshly-caught anchovies are rinsed and drained, then placed in earthenware barrels where they sit in between salt layers. The tops of the barrels are covered with bamboo mats which help prevent the fish from floating to the top. The barrel is then placed in a sunny area for 9-18 months.

The fermentation process will break down the anchovies and produce a sauce. The sauce is strained and put into bottles.

Ways to Use Fish Sauce

It can find its way in most delicious meals of the Thais and Vietnamese. Here are just some of the most popular ways of using it in their cuisines.

  1. Combine the undiluted fish sauce lime juice and use as dressing to most seafood salads.
  2. Flavor most non-dessert dishes, ranging from stir-fried food, fried fish, soups, curries, snacks.
  3. Use as a condiment in marinating meat, fish, and poultry.
  4. Serve as an all-around dipping sauce, depending on the preference, you can either utilize it alone or with some chilies and lime juice.
  5. Use in place of soy sauce or salt.

If you’re still wondering how Thai and Vietnamese cooking use fish sauce, here are some recipes to inspire you.

Viet Dipping Sauce

thai dipping sauce

This all-around dipping sauce  is a common sight in Vietnamese households and is used with meat, vegetables, and fish. It can also be drizzled over steamed rice to give it more flavor. Here’s a recipe that you can follow to replicate the sauce.


  •  1 serrano chili
  •  2/3 cup warm water
  • 1.5 tsp fresh lime juice
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped
  • 5 tbsp fish sauce
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tbsp shredded carrots for garnishing


Chop the chili into rings. Set aside 1/3 of the chopped chili and place the 2/3 into a mortar. Add in garlic and sugar and pound until you come up with the paste-like mixture. Transfer the chili mixture into a small bowl and add in fish sauce, water lime juice, carrot, and mix. Let stand for 10 minutes, then serve.

Below is some advice to help you to relish the popular Vietnamese food which goes with Viet dipping sauce:

Vermicelli with Egg rolls

Vermicelli with egg rolls

Stuffed pancake

Stuffed pancake

Vietnamese broken rice with grilled pork

Vietnamese broken rice with grilled pork

Traditional Vietnamese meal with boiled pork meat, soup, fermented cabbage

Traditional Vietnamese meal with boiled pork meat, soup, fermented cabbage

Fried fish

Fried Fish and thai dipping sauce

Thai Fish Sauce Dressing

Thai Fish

Seafood salads usually make use of this Thai recipe. You can adjust some ingredients to taste.


  • 3 red and 3 green Thai chili
  • 2 tbsp fish sauce
  • 6 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 3 tbsp lime juice


Place garlic and chilies in a mortar and pound until they become a paste. Transfer garlic-chili mixture into a small bowl and add in the rest of the ingredients. Stir to combine. Add more fish sauce, sugar or lime juice if desired.

The pungent smell may mask its flavorful potentials, but when you get to know it a little better and use just the right amount, you might also find it as indispensable as the Vietnamese and Thais do.


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