If you’re a seafood lover, you may be familiar with fish sauce – a popular condiment in Southeast Asian cuisine.
But if you have a shellfish allergy, you may be wondering if fish sauce contains any shellfish.
The answer is not straightforward, as fish sauce can be made from different types of seafood.
In this article, we’ll explore the origins of fish sauce, its ingredients, and whether or not it contains shellfish.
So, let’s dive in and find out if you can safely enjoy the umami flavor of Thai fish sauce!
Does Thai Fish Sauce Contain Shellfish?
Fish sauce, also known as nước mắm, is a condiment that is made by fermenting fish in salt. It is a staple ingredient in many Southeast Asian dishes, including Thai cuisine.
Traditionally, fish sauce was made using different species of fish and shellfish, as well as using the whole fish or just the blood or viscera. However, most modern fish sauces contain only fish and salt, usually made from anchovy, shrimp, mackerel, or other strong-flavored, high oil fish.
While some variants of fish sauce may add herbs and spices, the main ingredients are fish and salt. Therefore, if you have a shellfish allergy, you can safely consume Thai fish sauce as long as it does not contain any added shellfish.
It’s important to note that some restaurants may use shellfish stock as a flavoring or base for sauces or soups. Always inform your server or a manager about your allergy and ask them if any items you’re thinking about ordering contain shellfish.
The Origins Of Fish Sauce
The origins of fish sauce can be traced back to ancient times, with evidence of its use in both Greek and Roman cuisine. In fact, the Roman condiment known as garum was used in a variety of recipes and as a substitute for salt. Pompeii was even famous for its production of garum.
Fish sauce was also produced by the Carthaginians along the coast of the Lake of Tunis in modern-day Tunisia. A Punic shipwreck from the 5th century BCE found off the coast of Ibiza may have been carrying fish sauce stored in amphorae made in Spain and Morocco.
While fish sauce is now a staple ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisine, it’s possible that its lineage may not be Asian after all. With its ancient Mediterranean roots, it’s interesting to consider how it eventually made its way to Southeast Asia and became such an integral part of their culinary culture.
Today, fish sauce is mostly made from anchovy, shrimp, mackerel, or other high oil fish mixed with salt at a concentration of 10% to 30%. It is then sealed in a closed container for up to two years to allow for fermentation. While some manufacturers may add caramel, molasses, or roasted rice to improve the visual appearance and taste, the main ingredients remain fish and salt.
How Is Fish Sauce Made?
Fish sauce is made by mixing fish or shellfish with salt at a concentration of 10% to 30%. The mixture is then sealed in a closed container for up to two years. During this time, the fish ferments and breaks down, resulting in a liquid that is rich in flavor and aroma.
Traditionally, oily fish such as anchovies are placed in a barrel with salt and slowly pressed to extract the liquid. However, other strong-flavored, high oil fish like shrimp or mackerel can also be used.
Once the original draft is made, some fish sauces will be produced through a re-extraction of the fish mass via boiling. To improve the visual appearance and add taste, second-pass fish sauces often have added caramel, molasses, or roasted rice. They are thinner and less costly.
Some volume manufacturers of fish sauce will also water down a first-press to manufacture more product. Fish sauce that has been only briefly fermented has a pronounced fishy taste. Extended fermentation reduces this and gives the product a nuttier, richer, and more savory flavor.
Types Of Fish Used In Fish Sauce
Fish sauce is made from different types of fish, but the most commonly used fish in Thai fish sauce are anchovies, mackerel, and shrimp. Anchovy-based fish sauce is the most popular and widely used in Southeast Asia. The fish are fermented with salt and water for several months, resulting in a thin, brown liquid with a pungent aroma.
Mackerel-based fish sauce is also popular in Thailand and is known for its strong flavor. Shrimp-based fish sauce, on the other hand, has a much lighter flavor and is often used in Vietnamese cuisine.
Other types of fish may be used in fish sauce as well, depending on the region and the recipe. For example, in the Philippines, fish sauce is commonly made with sardines or herring.
It’s important to note that not all fish sauces are created equal. The quality of fish sauce can vary depending on the type of fish used, the fermentation process, and the amount of salt added. High-quality fish sauce typically has a more complex flavor profile and is less salty than lower-quality versions.
Does Fish Sauce Contain Shellfish?
Fish sauce is made by fermenting fish in salt, and historically, it has been prepared using different species of fish and shellfish. However, most modern fish sauces contain only fish and salt, usually made from anchovy, shrimp, mackerel, or other strong-flavored, high oil fish.
During the fermentation process, the salt acidifies the fish over time, resulting in a salty and flavored liquid with a black or brown appearance. While some variants of fish sauce may add herbs and spices, the main ingredients are fish and salt.
Therefore, if you have a shellfish allergy, you can safely consume Thai fish sauce as long as it does not contain any added shellfish. However, it’s important to note that some restaurants may use shellfish stock as a flavoring or base for sauces or soups. Always inform your server or a manager about your allergy and ask them if any items you’re thinking about ordering contain shellfish.
Cross-Contamination And Labeling Concerns For Shellfish Allergies
If you have a shellfish allergy, cross-contamination can be a serious concern when dining out. Cross-contamination occurs when an allergen gets into a food product through contact with surfaces, utensils, or oil that have been used to prepare shellfish. This is particularly common in seafood restaurants, where shellfish is often prepared alongside other foods.
To avoid cross-contamination, it’s important to inform the restaurant staff about your allergy and ask them to take precautions when preparing your food. Some restaurants may have separate areas or utensils for preparing allergen-free meals. It’s also important to avoid fried foods, as many places cook chicken, French fries, and shellfish in the same oil.
When eating away from home, it’s also important to read food labels carefully and look for advisory statements such as “May contain shellfish,” “Processed in a facility that also processes shellfish,” or “Manufactured on equipment also used for shellfish.” Some companies may not label for cross-contamination, so it’s best to contact them directly to inquire about their manufacturing processes.
It’s also important to note that some people with shellfish allergies may experience cross-reactivity with other foods. This occurs when the body’s immune system identifies proteins in different substances as being similar or related, triggering an allergic response. The most common cross-reactivities with shellfish are other crustaceans (e.g., lobster, shrimp, and crab), and weaker cross-reactivity is found with mollusks (e.g., scallops, mussels, oysters, and squid).
Alternatives To Fish Sauce For Shellfish Allergy Sufferers
If you have a shellfish allergy and cannot consume fish sauce, there are several alternatives available that can provide a similar umami flavor to your dishes.
One option is to use soy sauce, which is made from fermented soybeans, water, salt, and wheat. Soy sauce has a rich umami flavor with a hint of sweetness due to the amino acids in soybeans. It’s also suitable for vegans and can be used as a substitute for fish sauce in many recipes.
Another alternative is Worcestershire sauce, which is made from fermenting fish along with other ingredients like anchovies, molasses, tamarind, vinegar, cloves, onions, and other seasonings. Worcestershire sauce has a complex and rich flavor profile that makes it one of the best alternatives for fish sauce. It’s lower in sodium than fish sauce, making it an excellent option for those following a low-sodium meal plan.
For those who are allergic to shellfish but not regular fish, fish stock or fish sauce made from krill can be used as an alternative to traditional fish sauce. However, it’s important to note that these options may not be suitable for vegans or those following a plant-based diet.
It’s important to experiment with different alternatives and see which one works best for your specific recipe and taste preferences. Always read the ingredient labels carefully and consult with your doctor or allergist if you have any concerns about food allergies.