Is Fish Sauce Supposed To Smell Bad? Experts Explain

Fish sauce is a popular condiment in Southeast Asian cuisine, known for its salty and savory flavor. However, it’s also notorious for its pungent smell, which can be off-putting to some.

This has led to a common question among food enthusiasts: is fish sauce supposed to smell bad? In this article, we’ll explore the production process of fish sauce and the reasons behind its strong aroma.

We’ll also answer some common questions about fish sauce, including whether it goes bad if not refrigerated and whether it contains shrimp.

So, if you’re curious about this beloved (and sometimes maligned) condiment, read on!

Is Fish Sauce Supposed To Smell Bad?

The short answer is yes, fish sauce is supposed to have a strong smell. In fact, the production process of fish sauce is what gives it its distinct aroma.

Fish sauce is made by fermenting fish and salt together for an extended period of time. During this process, the fish breaks down and releases amino acids and other compounds that contribute to the sauce’s flavor and smell.

In the early stages of fermentation, when the anchovies are still visible in the mixture of water and salt, the smell can be quite strong. However, as the fermentation process continues and the fish breaks down further, the smell becomes less overpowering.

So while fish sauce may not be everyone’s cup of tea in terms of aroma, its strong smell is actually a sign that it has been properly fermented and is ready to use.

The Production Process Of Fish Sauce

The production process of fish sauce is a complex and time-consuming one. In Vietnam, there are four main methods used to produce fish sauce: sun exposure and stirring, compression, mixed (compression-sun exposure-stirring), and sealed drying.

The compression method involves washing fresh fish and mixing it with salt in a ratio of 3:1 (e.g. 1kg of salt for 3kg of fish). The mixture is then carefully compressed in sealed barrels. This method relies on the yeast in the fish to break down the protein of the fish meat, without the use of water or stirring.

After about 1-2 years, when the color of the fish sauce changes from light yellow to completely dark yellow with a natural aroma, it is fully cooked and ready to be served. Due to the fermented process of fish and salt under pressed and hot conditions for a long time, the fish sauce smell becomes strong.

The production process of fish sauce requires a lot of concentration and professional skills to produce it. Different regions in Vietnam have their own ways of producing fish sauce, making it a unique and specialized product.

The Role Of Fermentation In Fish Sauce’s Aroma

Fermentation plays a crucial role in the aroma of fish sauce. As mentioned earlier, during the fermentation process, the fish undergoes a breakdown, releasing amino acids and other compounds. These compounds are responsible for the unique aroma of fish sauce.

One of the most important compounds released during fermentation is glutamic acid, which is responsible for the umami flavor in fish sauce. The longer the fermentation process, the more glutamic acid is produced, resulting in a stronger umami flavor.

Another important compound released during fermentation is trimethylamine oxide (TMAO). TMAO is responsible for the initial strong smell of fish sauce. However, as the fermentation process continues, TMAO is converted into trimethylamine (TMA), which has a less overpowering smell.

The role of enzymes in the fermentation process is also crucial. Enzymes such as papain are used to accelerate the fermentation process and improve the quality of fish sauce. However, if too much enzyme is added, it can lead to over-degradation of proteins and result in a viscous material.

In addition to enzymes, starter cultures are also used to improve the quality of fish sauce. The use of starter cultures can shorten the fermentation time and produce a desirable level of flavor within a shorter timeframe.

The Differences In Aroma Among Different Brands Of Fish Sauce

While fish sauce is known for its strong aroma, there can be differences in the smell among different brands. Commercial fish sauce, for example, may have a stronger and more unpleasant smell compared to traditional fish sauce.

This is because commercial fish sauce often uses anchovy extracts rather than whole anchovies in the fermentation process. These extracts can contain additives and preservatives that contribute to the strong smell.

On the other hand, traditional fish sauce made with whole anchovies and salt tends to have a more complex and nuanced aroma. The specific type of fish used in the production process can also affect the smell of the final product.

Ultimately, the aroma of fish sauce can be subjective and may vary depending on personal preferences and cultural backgrounds. However, it’s important to note that the strong smell is a natural result of the fermentation process and is not necessarily an indication of spoilage or contamination.

Does Fish Sauce Go Bad If Not Refrigerated?

Fish sauce is known for its long shelf life and does not require refrigeration. However, it is important to note that the shelf life of fish sauce can vary depending on whether it has been opened or not.

Unopened fish sauce can be stored in a cool, dark place like the pantry for up to two years without going bad. As long as the seal remains unbroken, the fish sauce will not spoil and can be safely consumed.

Once the bottle is opened, the shelf life of fish sauce decreases. If the bottle is kept at room temperature and tightly sealed, it can remain fresh for up to six months. However, after a month or so, the quality and taste may start to deteriorate.

If you are looking to store fish sauce for a longer period, it is recommended to keep it in the refrigerator. Storing it in a chill place like the fridge will help retain its quality and taste for up to a year after opening.

It is important to note that while fish sauce does not necessarily go bad if not refrigerated, it may continue to ferment and change slightly in flavor over time. This is still safe to eat, but if you want to maintain the best quality of your fish sauce for an extended period of time, refrigeration is the better choice. Make sure to always keep the bottle tightly sealed and away from direct sunlight.

Does Fish Sauce Contain Shrimp Or Other Shellfish?

Fish sauce historically has been prepared from different species of fish and shellfish, but most modern fish sauces contain only fish and salt. The fish used in making fish sauce are usually strong-flavored, high oil fish such as anchovy, shrimp, or mackerel. While some variants may add herbs and spices, the main ingredients are typically just fish and salt.

However, it is important to note that some volume manufacturers of fish sauce may water down a first-press to manufacture more product. Additionally, some second-pass fish sauces may have added caramel, molasses, or roasted rice to improve visual appearance and add taste. These second-pass fish sauces are thinner and less costly than the original.

If you have a shellfish allergy, it is important to be cautious when dining out or cooking with fish sauce. Some restaurants and cuisines, such as Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, or Malaysian foods, often include a fish sauce made from shrimp or imitation shellfish. Always inform your server or a manager about your allergy and ask if any items you’re considering ordering contain shellfish.

Tips For Using Fish Sauce In Cooking

Now that we know that fish sauce is supposed to have a strong smell, let’s talk about how to use it in cooking. Here are some tips to help you get the most out of this flavorful condiment:

1. Use it sparingly: Fish sauce is a powerful ingredient, and a little goes a long way. Start with just a small amount and add more as needed.

2. Balance it out: While fish sauce adds a savory, umami flavor to dishes, it can also be quite salty. Be sure to balance it out with other flavors like acid (lemon juice, vinegar), sweetness (sugar, honey), or heat (chili peppers).

3. Experiment with different cuisines: While fish sauce is commonly used in Southeast Asian cuisine, it can also add depth of flavor to dishes from other regions. Try using it in marinades for grilled meats or vegetables, or in dressings for salads.

4. Pair it with complementary flavors: Fish sauce pairs well with ingredients like cilantro, lime, garlic, ginger, and soy sauce. Use these flavors together in your dishes to create a harmonious balance of flavors.

5. Store it properly: While fish sauce does not need to be refrigerated, it should be stored in a cool, dark place away from direct sunlight. Once opened, it will last for several months in the pantry or even longer in the refrigerator.

By following these tips, you can use fish sauce to enhance the flavor of your favorite dishes and take your cooking to the next level. Don’t be afraid to experiment and have fun with this versatile ingredient!