Fish sauce is a staple ingredient in many Southeast Asian cuisines, but what about China?
While it may not be as commonly associated with Chinese cuisine as it is with Thai or Vietnamese, fish sauce does have a presence in certain regions of China.
In this article, we’ll explore the history and usage of fish sauce in China, as well as its similarities and differences to other popular condiments.
So, whether you’re a seasoned foodie or just curious about the world of culinary flavors, read on to discover the fascinating world of fish sauce in China.
Is Fish Sauce Used In China?
Fish sauce, known as yúlù in China, is a condiment that is native to the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian. It is commonly used in Chaoshan cuisine, where it is made with Reeve’s shad, a type of fish that is fatty, bony, and odorous, making it unsuitable for direct consumption.
While fish sauce may not be as widely used in China as it is in other Southeast Asian countries, it still has a presence in certain regions and dishes. In fact, some Chinese recipes call for the use of fish sauce as a seasoning or marinade for meats and vegetables.
The History Of Fish Sauce In China
The history of fish sauce in China dates back to 2300 years ago, during the Zhou dynasty. Sauces that included fermented fish parts with other ingredients such as meat and soybean were recorded in China. Fish fermented with soybeans and salt was used as a condiment during this time. By the time of the Han dynasty, soybeans were fermented without the fish into soy paste, and its by-product soy sauce, with fermented fish-based sauces developing separately into fish sauce.
Demand for fish sauces and fish pastes in China fell drastically by 50-100 BC, with fermented bean products becoming a major trade commodity. However, fish sauce developed massive popularity in Southeast Asia. Food scholars traditionally divide East Asia into two distinct condiment regions, separated by a bean-fish divide: Southeast Asia mainly uses fermented fish (Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia), and Northeast Asia uses mainly fermented beans (China, Korea, Japan).
Fish sauce re-entered China in the 17th and 18th centuries, brought from Vietnam and Cambodia by Chinese traders up the coast of the southern provinces Guangdong and Fujian. Today, fish sauce is still used in certain regions and dishes in China, particularly in Chaoshan cuisine where it is made with Reeve’s shad.
Regional Variations In Fish Sauce Usage
Food scholars have traditionally divided East Asia into two distinct condiment regions, separated by a bean-fish divide: Southeast Asia, mainly using fermented fish, and Northeast Asia, using mainly fermented beans. In Southeast Asia, fish sauce is a staple condiment that is widely used in cooking and as a dipping sauce. Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia are known for their fish sauces, which are made with various types of fish such as anchovies or mackerel. These sauces are typically graded according to fermentation and extraction, with the highest quality sauces being aged for several months to develop a rich flavor.
In contrast, the Philippines has a less discriminating approach to fish sauce production. Their fish sauce, called patis, is made with round scad and is not graded according to fermentation or extraction. It is used interchangeably both as a dipping sauce and in cooking. The lack of distinction in either grade or flavor means that Filipino fish sauces are less fastidious in their manufacture than their Vietnamese and Thai counterparts.
In China, fish sauce has a long history dating back to the Zhou dynasty when fish was fermented with soybeans and salt to make a condiment. By the time of the Han dynasty, soybeans were fermented without the fish into soy paste and soy sauce, while fermented fish-based sauces developed separately into fish sauce. Fish sauce re-entered China in the 17th and 18th centuries, brought from Vietnam and Cambodia by Chinese traders up the coast of the southern provinces Guangdong and Fujian. Today, fish sauce is still used in certain regions and dishes of China, particularly in Chaoshan cuisine where it is made with Reeve’s shad.
The origins of Asian fish sauce are still debated among food historians, chefs, and nutrition experts. Some theories suggest that Asian fish sauces like nuoc mam in Vietnam or nam pla in Thailand were influenced by Roman garum through the Silk Road trade route. Others argue that these sauces were developed independently using the same fermentation techniques as Chinese soy sauce. Regardless of its origins, fermented fish sauces and dishes have been used by various civilizations around the world as an effective way to preserve food.
How Fish Sauce Compares To Other Condiments In Chinese Cuisine
When it comes to condiments in Chinese cuisine, fish sauce is not the only option. Oyster sauce, for example, is a popular alternative that is used in many Chinese dishes, particularly stir-fries. Oyster sauce has a thick consistency and a sweet, earthy flavor that is different from fish sauce’s bright and briny taste.
Soy sauce is another staple condiment in Chinese cuisine that is often used in place of fish sauce. While both sauces offer umami flavor, soy sauce is made from fermented soybeans instead of fish aminos. This makes soy sauce a vegetarian-friendly option for those who want to avoid animal products.
It’s important to note that fish sauce and oyster sauce are not interchangeable in recipes. They have distinct flavors and textures that can greatly impact the final dish. Fish sauce is also lower in sodium than salt, making it a healthier alternative for those watching their sodium intake.
Recipes Featuring Fish Sauce In Chinese Cooking
Fish sauce is a versatile ingredient that can add depth and complexity to Chinese dishes. Here are some Chinese recipes that feature fish sauce:
1. Chinese “Smoked” Fish: This dish involves deep-frying fish fillets and serving them with a homemade fish sauce made from soy sauce, leek, and ginger. The dark soy sauce used in the sauce gives the fish a smoky flavor, hence the name of the dish.
2. Stir-Fried Vegetables with Fish Sauce: This recipe involves stir-frying vegetables like bok choy, bell peppers, and onions in a wok with garlic and ginger. A splash of fish sauce is added towards the end of cooking to give the vegetables a savory umami flavor.
3. Hainanese Chicken Rice: This popular Singaporean dish is also enjoyed in southern China. The chicken is poached in a broth made with ginger, scallions, and fish sauce, which infuses it with flavor and keeps it moist.
4. Cantonese Claypot Rice: This hearty rice dish is cooked in a clay pot with ingredients like Chinese sausage, chicken, and mushrooms. A mixture of soy sauce, oyster sauce, and fish sauce is added to the pot for flavor.
5. Mapo Tofu: This spicy Sichuan dish features tofu cubes cooked in a spicy chili bean paste sauce with ground pork. A splash of fish sauce towards the end of cooking adds depth of flavor to the dish.
These are just a few examples of how fish sauce can be used in Chinese cooking to add complexity and depth of flavor to dishes. While it may not be as commonly used as it is in other Southeast Asian cuisines, it has its place in certain regions and dishes in China.
The Future Of Fish Sauce In China’s Culinary Scene
With the increasing popularity of fermented foods and the growing interest in Southeast Asian cuisine, it is likely that fish sauce will become more prevalent in China’s culinary scene. In recent years, the fish sauce industry in China has seen significant growth, with a domestic output of over 100,000 tons per year. This growth is due in part to the increasing demand for traditional Chinese fish sauce, like Guangdong Chaoshan fish sauce.
As Chinese chefs continue to experiment with different flavors and ingredients, it is possible that fish sauce will become a staple in more dishes beyond Chaoshan cuisine. Its unique umami flavor and versatility make it a great addition to marinades, dressings, and sauces for a variety of dishes.
Furthermore, as the global market for fish sauce expands, Chinese producers may have the opportunity to export their own versions of this condiment to other countries. This could lead to a greater appreciation and understanding of Chinese cuisine and its unique flavors.