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The Most Unusual Substitutes for Fish Sauce Yet

Written by Luisa Davis on . Posted in food

It’s sweet, salty and widely used in many Asian cuisine, but the sad thing that stands out about fish sauce is that it’s not suitable for everybody – and this is where fish sauce substitutes come in. Fish sauce, otherwise known as ‘nam pla’ in Thai is one of the most basic ingredients and Thai and generally Southeast Asian cooking.

It has a thick, rich, glorious reddish-golden-brown color that easily stands out in a glass jar. Fish sauce is made of fish, and for people with allergies or vegans and vegetarians, fish is a no-no. And for this reason substitutes were made to make up for whatever problems people might have with consuming the real deal; but before we substitute, let’s talk fish sauce.

The Sweet and Savory Fish Sauce

The word ‘umami’ is a Japanese word for something that’s sweet, savory and so flavorful in its entirety. It’s like you eat something and the flavors in it are so pronounced, so unexpected, so bold and exotic and it just hits you and you go, ‘umami!’ At least that’s what I think happens whenever I have fish sauce.

Fish sauce is basically fish in a sauce, and yet it’s so far from ordinary fish in a sauce. Fish sauce is what you get when you ferment fish for a couple of months to a couple of years say 10 to 18 months. Fish sauce uses three basic ingredients in its production – fish, salt and water. Most times it’s the anchovy fish that’s used but some varieties use other fish like mackerel, shrimp or squid.

How exactly do you ferment fish?

The process is actually quite simple. The fish is coated with salt and packed in large barrels filled with water to infuse. Natural bacteria then break down the fish, in the process producing a briny, fishy, salty, savory, sweet liquid that is fish sauce. Obviously, fish sauce will smell strongly like fish and if this smell is repugnant to you, you can easily tone it done with lime juice and fresh chilies as seen in most Asian recipes that use fish sauce.

And my, do the Asians use fish sauce. They use it in everything from marinating meat or fish to boosting the flavor of a stir-fry or salad to adding some extra ‘zing effect’ to chicken broths or roast chicken or to just dash all over your meal, much the same way you would with pepper and salt. They even use it as a base to make dipping sauces. It’s everywhere and can be used in everything.

Fish sauce is an untradeable condiment in Southeast Asian cooking. They simply do not do without it. It is used widely as a staple seasoning in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Lao, but Vietnam and Thailand are the chief makers of the fish sauce.

In America, you can get it in the ‘international’ section of a supermarket or best still, an Asian supermarket. Just look to make sure it’s made in either Vietnam or Thailand and check the ingredients to be sure the essentials are there. In this age of Amazon, you can also order online from the comfort of your home.

The remarkable thing about fish sauce is that it makes something that would ordinarily be bland, for instance, mushrooms, taste extraordinarily amazing in an instant. It’s an experience that a person should have in this life, at least once. And if you can’t for some reason, there are substitutes for fish sauce which I’ll be talking about now that can give you a sweet, salty savor that’s closer to the actual fish sauce than you think. Just keep reading.

Fish Sauce Alternatives

At some point in an individual’s life, you have to have fish sauce. I get that health or diet or even availability issues can prevent some people from going out there to enjoy it, and so I’m bringing fish sauce to you in a way that you can enjoy and appreciate it. But first, there are some ground rules that have to be laid.

When we want to substitute for fish sauce in recipes, we must take into account the fact that fish sauce is salty, and we need to match that salt in our recipe so we can still get the ordinary taste and flavor that was intended. If you’re not allergic to fish, you can incorporate fish into the meal and add some sea salt.

Sea salt has lower sodium levels than does table salt so you can add a lot and not have to worry about the sodium. Most people are concerned about the sodium levels in fish sauce, they do seem high, but bear in mind that its only a part of a meal, not the whole meal itself and this seemingly high sodium will be distributed across board.

The next thing is what you intend to achieve with your substitute. Are you after the fish smell or taste in the meal or is it the sweet, salty thick base you want? Do you want to use it to marinate meat or fish or as part of a salad or dipping sauce? To get the best possible fish sauce replacement, you need to consider what you want to do otherwise you may end up with a product that is not what you wanted and not usable too.

The last most important point to note about what is used in for substituting fish sauce is that it is a substitute. It will not taste exactly like the fish sauce you remember and it should not. Even though it’s standing in place of fish sauce, it has its own uniqueness and properties that must not be compromised. Now, we look at some substitutes.

  1. Worcestershire Sauce

This blend of anchovies, tamarind, malt, vinegar, molasses, sugar, salt, onions and garlic spice makes the perfect fish sauce replacement if you can’t get the actual fish sauce. It still has fish in it though, so it’s still not ideal for people with fish allergies. To substitute, simply use equal parts fish sauce for equal parts Worcestershire sauce.

  1. Soy Sauce

This is a very common ingredient used in Asian cooking that is now gaining recognition all over the world. It is a salty, brown-colored liquid that is made out of fermented soy beans mixed with roasted grain (rice, barley or wheat) in a yeast mold and seasoned with salt. It is then left to age for months and strained thereafter.

For people without allergies, soy sauce can be combined with finely minced anchovy fillets in a 1:4 ratio to get that ultimate fish sauce taste. Simply mix all the ingredients in a small saucepan and simmer for 10 minutes. Then strain the mixture through a fine sieve and use your soy sauce fish sauce as you like.

If you are allergic to fish, you can skip on the anchovy part and just use your soy sauce straight up. If you still want that fishy salty taste, you can then add fish-flavored seasoning and more sea salt.

A salty broth made from mushrooms, soy sauce and salt can also be mixed and used in equal parts ratio with fish sauce and used as a fish sauce replacement. Add a squeeze of lime juice for an extra sour kick.

You could also whisk hoisin or miso into the soy sauce for an extra complex flavor. Hoisin and miso will give some of that umami flavor that comes with fish sauce.

If you wish to replace fish sauce as a dipping sauce, you could use soy sauce, vinegar and water. You could also use soy sauce mixed with fermented soybean paste, sugar, vinegar, chili pepper and water for an even more exotic dipping sauce. If you want to dress a salad for example, a combination of lime juice, soy sauce and sugar makes a good dressing.

  1. Thai Thin Sauce

This is known as ‘see ew cow’ or white soy sauce among the Thai. It has the same salty, savory flavor of fish sauce, but is not made with fish. It is made of soybean, wheat flour, salt, water, sugar and preservatives. This means that people with fish allergies can enjoy this savory goodness. It is best used in fried rice, noodles and stir-fried dishes because the soy flavor really blends with and complements the other ingredients.

Some other substitutions include a mix of seaweed and lemon juice, seaweed for the fish taste and lemon for a little bit of sourness; there’s also the option to substitute oyster sauce for fish sauce, and this will work for people with just fish and not general seafood allergies. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) adds the umami factor to meals that is not easily gotten even with fish sauce. A little salt and some MSG will add that splendid umami taste to your meal, without the fish or the smell or taste.

Vegan Fish Sauce Substitute

Vegans are not left out of this substitution spree. Vegan substitute for Asian fish sauce abound, and are not as difficult to obtain as you’d imagine. Although it’s a misnomer, vegan fish sauce does exist, and it is made out of not fish but seaweed so vegans are in the clear. A good substitute can easily be gotten from a Vietnamese food market, the Thai ones don’t really have them but as always, you can make your own.

As I said before, it’s not really fish but seaweed and a host of other stuff that’s in the fish sauce. Forget the name; the goal here is to recreate that amazing umami taste that is the embodiment of fish sauce in the best way possible.

Vegan Fish Sauce Recipe

To recreate the fish sauce vegan-style, we will need dried shiitake mushrooms, wakame seaweed, kombu seaweed, garlic, soy sauce, pineapple rings and juice, sea salt, and miso paste. Two different seaweeds are used to give this sauce something of a fish flavor, something close to the flavor of the ocean.

The soy sauce accords saltiness to the sauce and the umami factor is achieved with the shiitake mushrooms. The miso paste gives it a slightly fermented taste that the real fish sauce has. Remember that fish sauce is essentially fish fermented with salt in water. The amount of salt in the sauce will prevent the sauce from going bad when refrigerated.

To make, slice up the mushroom and seaweeds and add to a pot with 6 cups of water. Add 6 cloves of garlic and boil for about 20 minutes. After boiling, leave the shreds to infuse for about an hour so all the flavors can really come out. Strain out, but do not throw away the shreds.

Now you add a cup of Asian soy sauce, and a quarter cup of pineapple juice with 3 pineapple rings. The pineapple is added because fish sauce has a quiet tangy taste to it that is similar to the taste of pineapples. Then boil again. Reduce the heat so the sauce won’t burn and simmer for about 10 minutes.

Then you add 3 tablespoons of sea salt because the salt in the soy sauce is not enough to provide the required fish sauce saltiness. Then you turn the heat off and add a tablespoon of miso. Now you re-add the shitake seaweed shreds and set down to cool for 1-2 days, strain and pour into a bottle.

You can then set it aside and use in place of fish sauce as your recipe demands.  Some recipes that vegan fish sauce excels well in are vegetarian pad Thai, Thai glass noodle salad, kimchi and even fried rice. This is a great substitute for vegans, vegetarians and people with seafood allergies. Now you have no reason not to enjoy all the wonders that fish sauce provides.

Remember the Worchestershire sauce listed above?

Well, there is a variant of it that vegans can use in place of fish sauce and it is very easy to make too, if you have all your ingredients.

You will need:

  • 1 cup of apple cider vinegar
  • 4 tbsp of gluten-free soy sauce
  • 4 tbsp of water
  • 2 tsp of agave syrup (or natural organic brown sugar)
  • ½ tsp of ground ginger
  • ½ tsp of ground mustard
  • ½ tsp of onion powder
  • ½ tsp of garlic powder
  • ¼ tsp of cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp of black pepper

To make, mix all the ingredients in a sauce pan and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat and simmer to about 5 minutes to let all the syrup and sugar dissolve. Store in the refrigerator after it has cooled down.

Vegetarian Substitute for Fish Sauce

As the old saying goes, “what is good for the goose, is good for the gander.” We’ve looked at vegan substitutes; now let’s look at vegetarian substitutes. Some of the vegan substitutes mentioned are suitable for vegetarians, but not all of them.

The vegetarian fish sauce substitute on our list is made of soy sauce, fermented black soyabeans, miso and sherry. Combine a half cup of soy sauce and 2 teaspoons of sherry in a bowl. Mash up the fermented black beans (I used the Chinese version and it can easily be gotten at any Asian supermarket) and add to the soy sauce sherry mix and leave for a bit to soften.

Once soft (should be about 20 minutes), mix in the miso and stir properly. Then strain it out to get the liquid sauce and store in a refrigerator in a tightly sealed container for as long as you can. The longer it stays, the better it tastes.

Conclusion

If you haven’t tried fish sauce yet, you absolutely must. Quickly, before the week runs out. You can mix fish sauce in anything even if you’re not cooking Asian, and if you are making an Asian cuisine, this is the stuff to have.

We’ve covered so many fish sauce substitutes here for non-vegetarians, vegetarians, vegans, people with fish allergies, severe and mild, partial and full, and people who just don’t like the smell or taste of fish. We’ve covered the different ways it can be used and how each substitutes works so right now, you have no excuse not to try it. Get yourself some fish sauce or any of these substitutes and start cooking better. You’ve been told!

Luisa Davis

Luisa Davis

Luisa Davis is a frelance writer and foodie based in Portland, California. Though raised on her mother's homestyle Italian cooking, she has spent most of the last five years traveling and immersing herself in other countries' cuisines. Her work have been published in various publications, both online and offline.

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