Should I Use Fish Sauce In Pho? (Fully Explained)

Pho is a beloved Vietnamese dish that has gained popularity all over the world. It’s a hearty soup made with rice noodles, beef, and a flavorful broth.

But what really sets pho apart from other soups is the use of fish sauce. Some people swear by it, while others are hesitant to use it.

So, should you use fish sauce in pho? In this article, we’ll explore the role of fish sauce in pho and whether or not it’s essential to the dish.

Let’s dive in and find out!

Should I Use Fish Sauce In Pho?

Fish sauce is a staple ingredient in Vietnamese cuisine, and it’s no different when it comes to pho. It adds a unique umami flavor to the broth and is often used in combination with other sauces like soy sauce, hoisin sauce, and chili garlic sauce.

While fish sauce is more expensive than salt and MSG, it’s worth the investment for the depth of flavor it adds to the dish. However, not all fish sauces are created equal. It’s important to choose a high-quality fish sauce for the best results.

If you’re not sure where to start, Red Boat is a reliable brand that can be found in many grocery stores. If you have access to an Asian supermarket, look for mắm nhĩ, which is considered the first press or extra virgin of fish sauce.

But do you really need fish sauce in pho? The short answer is no. While it’s traditional to use fish sauce, some people prefer to use salt or a combination of both. It ultimately comes down to personal preference.

However, if you’re looking for an authentic pho experience, fish sauce is a must-have ingredient. It’s what gives the broth its distinct flavor and sets pho apart from other soups.

What Is Fish Sauce And How Is It Used In Vietnamese Cuisine?

Fish sauce, or nước mắm in Vietnamese, is a condiment made by fermenting fish with salt. It is a key ingredient in Vietnamese cuisine and is used in a variety of dishes, including stir-fries, stews, and dipping sauces. In fact, fish sauce is so important to Vietnamese cuisine that it’s often referred to as the national spirit of Vietnamese cuisine.

Fish sauce is made from different types of fish, but black anchovies and smaller white anchovies are the most commonly used in Vietnam. The fish are mixed with salt and allowed to ferment for several months to a year. The liquid that results from this process is then drained off and bottled as fish sauce.

In Vietnamese cuisine, fish sauce is used as a seasoning and a dipping sauce. It’s often used as a replacement for salt and adds a unique umami flavor to dishes. Fish sauce is especially common in dishes like bun cha, banh xeo, and banh cuon, where it’s used as a dipping sauce.

To make dipping sauce from fish sauce, it’s typically combined with sugar, water, rice vinegar, garlic, chili, fresh lime, or kumquat. This mixture results in a lighter taste than the original fish sauce and commonly has sweet, sour, salty, and spicy flavors.

The Traditional Ingredients Of Pho And Their Roles In The Dish

Pho is a Vietnamese soup that typically consists of a flavorful broth, rice noodles, herbs, and meat (usually beef). The broth is the star of the dish and is made by simmering beef bones, spices, and aromatics for several hours. The traditional ingredients used in pho are carefully chosen to create a complex flavor profile that is both savory and aromatic.

Beef bones are the base of the broth and provide a rich, meaty flavor. Tough, bony cuts of beef are often used for their collagen, which helps to create a gelatinous texture in the broth. The bones are first parboiled to remove any impurities before being simmered with spices and aromatics.

Spices are an essential part of pho and include cinnamon sticks, star anise, cloves, coriander, and cardamom. These spices add warmth and depth to the broth, creating a complex flavor that is both savory and sweet.

Aromatics like onion and ginger are also used to add sweetness and depth to the broth. These ingredients are charred before being added to the pot to enhance their flavor.

Fish sauce is another key ingredient in pho and adds a salty umami flavor to the dish. Made from fermented fish, salt, and water, fish sauce has a pungent aroma but adds a depth of flavor that is difficult to replicate with other ingredients.

Brown sugar is used to balance out the flavors in the broth and add a touch of sweetness. Soy sauce and Maggi seasoning may also be used in some versions of pho to add extra character and depth.

The Controversy Of Using Fish Sauce In Pho

Despite the importance of fish sauce in pho, there is some controversy surrounding its use. Some argue that the addition of fish sauce in pho is a recent phenomenon caused by the commercialization of ethnic food in American restaurants. Others argue that it’s difficult to find fresh traditional Vietnamese ingredients in America, which can result in a less authentic flavor.

However, it’s important to note that fish sauce has been used in pho for generations and is a staple ingredient in Vietnamese cuisine. While it may not be necessary to use fish sauce in pho, omitting it can result in a less flavorful broth.

It’s also worth noting that not all families use fish sauce in their pho broth. Some families from Northern Vietnam, like the author’s family, are adamant about not using fish sauce to season their broth. Instead, they rely on a combination of salt and sugar.

Ultimately, whether or not to use fish sauce in pho comes down to personal preference. Some people prefer the depth of flavor that fish sauce adds, while others prefer a simpler broth seasoned with just salt and sugar. It’s up to you to experiment and find what works best for your taste buds.

The Benefits Of Using Fish Sauce In Pho

Aside from adding a unique umami flavor to the broth, fish sauce has other benefits when used in pho. For one, it provides a natural source of sodium, which is important for maintaining proper bodily functions. This is especially important for those who are on a low-sodium diet and need to watch their salt intake.

Fish sauce also contains essential amino acids that are important for overall health. These amino acids help to support muscle growth and repair, as well as improve brain function and mood.

In addition, fish sauce is a good source of vitamin B12, which is essential for maintaining healthy nerve and blood cells. It’s also important for preventing certain types of anemia.

Alternatives To Fish Sauce For Those Who Prefer Not To Use It

For those who are allergic to fish or shellfish, or simply prefer not to use fish sauce, there are several alternatives that can be used in pho. One option is to use soy sauce, which is made from fermented soybeans, water, salt, and wheat. Soy sauce has a rich umami flavor and can be used as a 1:1 substitute for fish sauce. For an even closer substitution, replace the fish sauce with 1/2 soy sauce and 1/2 rice vinegar (or other vinegar). This will give you the salty sour freshness that is characteristic of fish sauce.

Another alternative is to use mushroom broth. Mushroom broth can be made by simmering dried mushrooms in water for several hours, then straining out the solids. The resulting broth has a rich, savory flavor that is similar to that of fish sauce.

If you’re looking for a more complex flavor profile, you can try making your own vegan “fish” sauce using seaweed and other ingredients. There are many recipes available online that use ingredients like kombu, dried shiitake mushrooms, and miso paste to create a flavorful vegan alternative to fish sauce.

Ultimately, the choice of whether or not to use fish sauce in pho is up to you. While it’s traditional to use fish sauce and adds an authentic flavor to the dish, there are plenty of alternatives available for those who prefer not to use it. Whether you choose to use soy sauce, mushroom broth, or a homemade vegan “fish” sauce, you can still enjoy a delicious bowl of pho without compromising on flavor.

Tips For Using Fish Sauce In Pho And How To Balance Its Flavor

When using fish sauce in pho, it’s important to keep in mind that a little goes a long way. Fish sauce is a potent ingredient that can easily overpower the other flavors in the broth if not used carefully.

To start, add the fish sauce gradually and taste as you go. You can always add more later if needed. It’s also best to use a high-quality fish sauce with a simple ingredient list that includes anchovies, water, salt, and sugar. Avoid brands with additional additives or preservatives.

Another tip is to balance the fish sauce with other ingredients in the broth. For example, adding sugar can help to counteract the saltiness of the fish sauce and bring out its umami flavor. Similarly, using aromatics like onion and ginger can help to balance out the strong flavor of the fish sauce.

It’s also important to note that fish sauce should be added towards the end of the cooking process, during the final tasting phase. This allows you to adjust the seasoning and ensure that the fish sauce is not overused.