14 Facts About Fish Sauce

Facts About Fish Sauce


Fish sauce is a popular condiment used in many Southeast Asian cuisines that provides a savory umami flavor. This ancient sauce made from fermented small fish has a very distinctive smell and taste profile. Fish sauce is a versatile and important ingredient that adds saltiness, complexity, and aroma to dishes across Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and beyond.

Fish sauce, known as nuoc mam in Vietnam and nam pla in Thailand, is a staple condiment used in Southeast Asian cooking. It is made from fish that has been salted and fermented for months to produce a thin, amber-brown liquid sauce with a very pungent odor. While many turn up their noses at first sniff, this umami-rich sauce adds an incredible savory depth to dishes.

Fish sauce provides a salty, complex flavor base for dishes like pho, stir-fries, and curries. It also frequently serves as a dipping sauce for spring rolls, grilled meats, and seafood. Once an ancient Roman sauce called garum, fish sauce is one of the oldest condiments in the world. Keep reading for 14 interesting facts about the origins, production, flavor components, and culinary uses of fish sauce around the globe.

Facts About Fish Sauce

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1. Fish Sauce Originated in Ancient Rome as “Garum”

Fish sauce has its origins in an ancient Roman condiment called garum or liquamen, which was made from fermented fish intestines, blood, and other parts. This thin, golden brown sauce became popular across the Roman Empire as a seasoning and dipping sauce. Southeast Asian cultures likely adopted the technique of fermenting small fish and salt into a sauce from traders who brought garum to the region centuries ago.

2. Anchovies and Other Small Fish Are Used to Make Fish Sauce

While ancient garum was made from fish leftovers, today’s fish sauce primarily uses whole anchovies, along with some other small, oily fish like mackerel, sardines, and scad. The small size and high oil content of these fish make them ideal for the fermentation process. Southeast Asian fish sauce factories may use up to 20 different species of small fish depending on availability and cost.

3. Fish Sauce Ferments for Months to Years in Large Tanks

To make fish sauce, raw fish and salt are layered in large tanks and weighted down. The fish ferments for at least 6 months to over a year. The warmer climate of Southeast Asia allows for faster fermentation than ancient Roman garum. Modern fish sauce factories often have rows of huge outdoor concrete vats several feet deep fermenting fish year-round.

4. Fish Sauce Has A Very Distinctive Aroma and Flavor Profile

The fermentation process gives fish sauce a very pungent smell, which comes from the breakdown of fish proteins into amino acids like glutamates. These amino acids give the fish sauce its signature umami flavor. The aroma is strong and fishy, while the flavor is quite salty and savory. Higher-quality fish sauce is more aroma-forward than low-quality brands.

5. Fish Sauce Adds Savory Depth and Saltiness to Southeast Asian Cuisine

In Southeast Asian cooking, fish sauce provides a boost of savory umami flavor and salt to balance sweet, sour, bitter, and spicy flavors. It’s an integral ingredient in noodle soups like Vietnam’s pho, Thai noodle dishes like pad thai, sour fish soups like Filipino sinigang, and Malaysian/Singaporean rice dishes. A few dashes enhance flavor without making a dish taste fishy.

6. Fish Sauce Is Also Used as a Dipping Sauce and Marinade

In addition to cooking, fish sauce is served as a dipping sauce for spring rolls, grilled meats, and seafood in Vietnam and beyond. It can also be used as a quick marinade for meat and fish, especially when mixed with garlic, ginger, lime, and spices. Fish sauce provides a big flavor fast without needing prolonged marinating time.

7. Fish Sauce Production Originated in Vietnam and Thailand Centuries Ago

Fish Sauce
Fish Sauce

Fish sauce production likely originated in Vietnam and Thailand, where it was made for centuries using traditional methods. Vietnamese fish sauce using anchovies is called nuoc mam, while Thai fish sauce nam pla typically contains more diverse fish. Today, Vietnam and Thailand remain two of the world’s largest producers and exporters of fish sauce.

8. Fish Sauce Was Traditionally Made in Small Batches at Home

Before industrialization, fish sauce was traditionally made in small batches at home in Vietnam, Thailand, and surrounding countries. Anchovies and salt were layered in clay jars and then fermented for months before the sauce was filtered out. Some regions still make homemade fish sauce this way for better quality and flavor.

9. Modern Fish Sauce Is Mass Produced in Large Factories

Most fish sauce today is mass-produced in large factories to meet global demand. Anchovies and salt are fermented in huge metal or concrete tanks and then bottled for export. Major fish sauce factories produce thousands of liters per year. Brands include Three Crabs, Red Boat, Megachef, and Phu Quoc.

10. Fish Sauce Has Become a Global Condiment Over the Past Century

Increased global connectivity and immigration from Southeast Asia has popularized fish sauce around the world over the past century. It can now be found at mainstream grocery stores and used in fusion cuisine worldwide. Chefs recognize its umami-enhancing abilities in dishes far beyond Southeast Asian food.

11. Quality Fish Sauce Is Produced Naturally Using Only Fish and Salt

Higher quality fish sauces are made using just two ingredients – fish and salt. No additives, MSG, or preservatives are added. The sauces ferment naturally for a clean, pure umami flavor. Lower quality brands may add sugar, thickeners, and MSG to shorten production time and mask unpleasant flavors.

12. Fish Sauce Brands Vary in Color, Viscosity, and Flavor

Not all fish sauces taste the same. Color can range from light golden to dark brown. Texture varies from thin and watery to thick and syrupy. Flavor profiles also differ depending on ingredients, production methods, and fermentation time. Vietnamese nuoc mam is generally lighter, thinner, and more pungent than thicker, sweeter Thai nam pla.

13. Fish Sauce Must Be Refrigerated After Opening

Unopened fish sauce can be stored at room temperature, but refrigeration is required after opening. The fermented sauce can spoil if left unrefrigerated for too long. Fish sauce may also crystallize in the fridge, so jars should be shaken before use. Unopened bottles can be kept for 3 years or longer.

14. Southeast Asian Cuisine Uses Fish Sauce Differently Than Soy Sauce

Although they are both salty and umami-rich, fish sauce and soy sauce are not interchangeable. Fish sauce has a more pungent, fermented flavor that quickly enhances other ingredients. Soy sauce is brewed and has a heavier, stronger taste. Vietnamese and Thai dishes rely on fish sauce as a key ingredient, not soy.

Fish sauce
Fish sauce by yooperann is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 .

FAQ: Fish Sauce

What is the origin of fish sauce?

The fish sauce originated from an ancient Roman condiment known as garum. It was made from fermented fish parts and has evolved into a key ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisine.

How is fish sauce made?

Fish sauce is produced by fermenting small, oily fish such as anchovies with salt in large tanks for several months to years, resulting in a thin, amber-brown liquid.

What does fish sauce taste like?

Fish sauce has a distinctive salty and savory flavor with a strong umami profile. It provides a depth of flavor to dishes without making them taste overly fishy.

Can fish sauce be used as a marinade?

Yes, fish sauce is often used as a marinade for meats and seafood. It imparts a rich flavor quickly, especially when combined with ingredients like garlic, ginger, and lime.

How should fish sauce be stored after opening?

Once opened, fish sauce should be refrigerated to prevent spoilage. It can last for several years if stored properly and should be shaken before use if crystallization occurs.


Fish sauce is an ancient condiment that continues to add its signature savory umami essence to Southeast Asian cuisine today. The thin sauce made from fermented anchovies provides a quick flavor punch to countless regional dishes. Fish sauce production and use originated centuries ago in Vietnam, Thailand, and surrounding countries. Now a global ingredient, versatile fish sauce can enhance flavors in dishes of all kinds. From its origins to production methods to culinary uses, fish sauce has a fascinating history and place in worldwide cuisine.

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