Fish sauce is a staple ingredient in many Southeast Asian dishes, known for its salty and savory flavor. But what exactly is in fish sauce? Does it contain shrimp, as some people may assume?
The answer is yes, and no. While some fish sauces are made solely from fish, others may contain shrimp or other seafood. In this article, we’ll explore the different types of fish sauce and what ingredients you can expect to find in them.
Whether you’re a seasoned chef or a curious foodie, read on to learn more about this beloved condiment.
Does Fish Sauce Have Shrimp?
As mentioned, some fish sauces do contain shrimp. In fact, shrimp is one of the most common ingredients used in fish sauce, along with anchovies, mackerel, and other high-oil fish.
The process of making fish sauce involves fermenting fish or seafood in salt for a period of time. During this process, the fish or seafood breaks down and releases its liquid, which is then collected and bottled as fish sauce.
While some fish sauces are made solely from fish, others may contain a combination of fish and shrimp. This can give the sauce a slightly different flavor profile, with the shrimp adding a subtle sweetness to the salty and savory base.
It’s important to note that not all fish sauces contain shrimp. If you have a shellfish allergy or are avoiding shrimp for other reasons, be sure to check the ingredients list before purchasing any fish sauce.
The Origins Of Fish Sauce
Fish sauce has a long and fascinating history, dating back to ancient civilizations. The earliest recorded use of fermented fish parts as a condiment was in China, 2300 years ago. During the Zhou dynasty, fish was fermented with soybeans and salt to create a condiment. By the time of the Han dynasty, soybeans were fermented without fish into soy paste, and fermented fish-based sauces developed separately into fish sauce. Fish sauce became incredibly popular in Southeast Asia, while fermented bean products became a major trade commodity in China.
The origins of fish sauce can also be traced back to ancient Rome and Greece. The Roman version of fish sauce, called garum, was used in a variety of recipes as a substitute for salt and a base for sauces. Pompeii was famous in ancient times for its production of garum. In Greece, fish sauce was known as gàros and was used in many dishes.
The process of making fish sauce involves fermenting small fish like anchovies in salt for several months to a few years. The natural bacteria break down the fish, producing a briny, savory liquid that is bottled as fish sauce. Fermentation has been used for thousands of years to develop flavor in anything from fish to meat to beans to vegetables.
Today, there are hundreds of varieties of fish sauce available on the market, with different brands and variations depending on region and ingredients. While some fish sauces contain shrimp along with other high-oil fish like anchovies and mackerel, not all do. It’s important to check the ingredients list before purchasing any fish sauce if you have a shellfish allergy or are avoiding shrimp for other reasons.
How Fish Sauce Is Made
The process of making fish sauce is a long and intricate one. The first step is to choose the fish or seafood to be used. Traditionally, oily fish such as anchovies are used, but shrimp, krill, and mackerel can also be used. The fish should be fresh, clean, and about the same size. The best fish sauce is made of one type of fish, though some makers may mix types depending on what’s freshly caught.
Once the fish has been selected, it is mixed with salt at a concentration of 10% to 30%. This mixture is then sealed in a closed container for up to two years. During this time, the fish breaks down and releases its liquid, which is then collected and bottled as fish sauce.
After the fermentation process is complete, some fish sauces will undergo a re-extraction of the fish mass via boiling. This helps to improve the visual appearance and add taste. Second-pass fish sauces often have added caramel, molasses, or roasted rice to enhance their flavor.
The liquid extraction that results from the fermentation process is transferred to shallow ceramic bowls and laid out in the sun. The heat of the sun evaporates some of the water out and leaves behind the fish sauce. A salty crust on the surfaces means this process, which takes anywhere from 5 days to 4 weeks depending on the weather, is done.
Once the evaporation process is complete, the fish sauce moves to a ceramic urn or plastic barrel where it ages for another month or two at least. It keeps up to three years, and the longer it sits, the lighter, sweeter, and less salty its flavor becomes.
Big companies may cut corners to make fish sauce faster, but traditional fish sauce makers take pride in their craft and do not use any additives. The process may not be pretty and can be quite stinky, but it creates a pungent, fishy, strong sauce that is highly valued in Southeast Asian cuisine.
Types Of Fish Sauce
There are many different types of fish sauce available, each with its own unique flavor and texture. Here are some of the most common types:
1. Anchovy Fish Sauce: This is the most traditional type of fish sauce, made solely from anchovies and salt. It has a strong, pungent flavor and is often used in Korean and Vietnamese cuisine.
2. Shrimp Fish Sauce: As mentioned above, some fish sauces contain shrimp in addition to fish. This type of fish sauce has a slightly sweeter taste than anchovy-based sauces.
3. Mackerel Fish Sauce: Mackerel is another type of oily fish that is commonly used in fish sauce. This type of sauce has a slightly milder flavor than anchovy-based sauces.
4. Squid Fish Sauce: Squid is a popular seafood ingredient in many Asian cuisines, and it’s also used to make fish sauce. Squid-based fish sauces tend to have a lighter, more delicate flavor than other types.
5. Vegan Fish Sauce: For those who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, there are also plant-based versions of fish sauce available. These are typically made from ingredients like seaweed, mushrooms, or soy sauce.
No matter which type of fish sauce you choose, it’s important to use it sparingly as it can be quite potent. A little goes a long way in adding depth and complexity to your dishes.
Shrimp In Fish Sauce
One popular dish that uses fish sauce and shrimp is caramel shrimp. This Vietnamese recipe involves sautéing large shrimp with garlic and onions before simmering them in a caramel sauce made from fish sauce, brown sugar, scallions, and cilantro.
The fish sauce used in this recipe adds depth and complexity to the dish, while the shrimp provides a subtle sweetness that balances out the saltiness of the sauce. It’s important to use high-quality fish sauce for this recipe, as it will greatly impact the overall flavor.
If you’re looking to make a vegetarian version of this dish, you can try substituting the shrimp with tofu or seitan. You can also experiment with different herbs and spices to customize the flavor to your liking.
Other Seafood In Fish Sauce
Fish sauce can be made from a variety of seafood, not just fish and shrimp. For example, some fish sauces are made from squid or krill, which can give the sauce a unique flavor profile. Additionally, some fish sauces may be made from a combination of different seafood, such as anchovies and mackerel.
The traditional method of making fish sauce involves fermenting the seafood in salt for up to two years. During this time, the fish or seafood breaks down and releases its liquid, which is then collected and bottled as fish sauce. Some modern fish sauces may use other methods, such as boiling or chemical extraction, to speed up the process.
It’s worth noting that while fish sauce is commonly associated with Southeast Asian cuisine, it has a long history in other regions as well. The ancient Greeks and Romans both used fish sauce in their cooking, and it’s still popular in Mediterranean cuisine today.
Vegan And Vegetarian Alternatives
For those who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, finding a suitable alternative to fish sauce can be a challenge. However, there are several options available that can provide a similar umami flavor without the use of seafood.
One popular substitute for fish sauce is soy sauce. Made from fermented soybeans, salt, wheat, and water, soy sauce has a salty and savory flavor profile that can work well in many Thai-inspired dishes. While it may not have the same depth of flavor as fish sauce, it is a readily available and easy-to-use alternative.
Another option is to make your own vegan fish sauce substitute using ingredients such as mushrooms, soy sauce, and seaweed. This can provide a similar flavor profile to traditional fish sauce without the use of seafood. It’s important to note that the taste may differ slightly from regular fish sauce, but it can still add the right umami flavor to your dishes.
For those who enjoy kimchi but are avoiding seafood, there are several vegetarian and vegan options available. While traditional kimchi is often flavored with fermented seafood products such as brined shrimp or fish sauce, there are other common ingredients that can provide the same savoriness or umami taste. For example, adding miso paste or nutritional yeast to your kimchi can provide a similar flavor profile without the use of seafood.