The Secret to Southeast Asian Cooking

I love Southeast Asian food for its intense flavors! Fish sauce, made of anchovies and salt, is what creates that bold taste in Vietnamese, Thai and Cambodian cuisine. it is used in salads, soups, stir-fry and dipping sauces. Many chefs and home cooks have taken fish sauce beyond Asian dishes to deliver the umami flavor to some unexpected dishes. Try a few sprinkle on the ever so popular roasted Brussels sprouts and you’ll know what I mean!

With the increasing popularity of Southeast Asian food, fish sauce is much more available in the grocery store than ever before. If you don’t find it in your local grocery store, you can always have it delivered to your door by Amazon. Just don’t expect to get a good price on it – even on Amazon Prime Day!

I usually get my Red Boat Fish sauce at Trader Joe’s until they were unable to restock it from their supplier in the last several months.  When I saw Red Boat Fish sauce at Sur La Table selling for $8.95 (8.45 fl. oz.), it was all the motivation I needed to make a trip to the Asian market for the authentic stuff for cheap. Of course, when I got there I was confronted with an array of choices except the Red Boat brand I was looking for. How do I decide which one to buy? Not sure it matters if it’s from Thailand or Vietnam. Price is not the deciding factor since they are all inexpensive so it boils down to their ingredients. Surprisingly, some of them contain fillers other than anchovies and salt. For example, Three Crabs brand (popular with some chefs) contains anchovy extract, water, salt, fructose (a form of sugar) and hydrolysed vegetable protein (a form of MSG) and yet it makes the claim “no MSG added” on its label. Really! Imported foods don’t always meet the same regulation on label claims so read the ingredient list to verify their claims. My final choice was the “Top” brand containing anchovies fish extract, water and salt for $1.25 (23 fl. oz.).

Fish sauce is an extremely tasty fat-free condiment. It is very high in salt so you may need to adjust the amount of added salt in the dish when using fish sauce. Be adventurous and go beyond borders when cooking with it! If you are a novice, start with the dipping sauce below for salads, noodles and grilled meats. It is a family recipe from Mai Pham, author of “The Best of Vietnamese and Thai Cooking.” It has been my go-to for over 20 years.

Classic Vietnamese Dipping sauce (Nuoc Cham)

2 small garlic cloves, sliced

1-2 tsp. ground chile paste

1-2 Thai bird peppers, or any other chiles, chopped

1/4 cup good quality fish sauce

2//3 hot water

2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice with pulp

1/4 cup sugar

2 Tbsp. shredded carrots for garnish

Place the garlic, chile paste and fresh chiles in a mortar. With a pestle, pound into a paste. If you do not have a mortar and pestle, mince by hand.

Combine the garlic mixture with the remaining ingredients (except carrots) in a small mixing bowl. Stir until the sugar has dissolved. Ladle the sauce into small ramekins and float the carrot slivers on top. Makes 1 1/2 cups. Keeps in refrigerator for one month.

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