How Can Fish Sauce Smell So Bad, Yet Taste So Good?

Fish sauce is ubiquitous in Thai food. Every page of my Quick and Easy Thai cookbook includes it, sometimes in multiple steps. But what IS it? How does it taste good when it smells like regurgitated cat food?

Cook’s Illustrated offered the best summation on its finer points:

Fish sauce is a very potent Asian condiment made of the liquid from salted, fermented fish—and smells as such.  [It has] a limited ingredient list— some combination of fish extract, water, salt, and sugar. Fish sauce has a very concentrated flavor and, like anchovy paste, when used in appropriately small amounts, lends foods a salty complexity that is impossible to replicate.

Okay, well, that makes sense. I don’t think American cuisine is fond of fermented foods in general. But I like it. For me it gives Asian dishes that umami taste — I can’t put my finger on it precisely, but without fish sauce, flavors lack depth somehow, and end up tasting just flat salty or garlicky. Somehow a tiny amount of fish sauce makes all the difference. When I say tiny, I mean that when opening a new bottle, I prick a hole in the top with a safety pin.

Tonight I’m trying my hand at making this recipe for Thai Fried Rice, which sounds like an easy, tasty and cheap way to cook a large pot of happiness. And you’ll notice in the description,  “The most important ingredients are the rice itself, the garlic and the fish sauce.”

The rice is made, the scallions ready to chop. Now to squeeze out just a wee touch of salted, fermented, liquified fish. Mmmmm.

3 thoughts on “How Can Fish Sauce Smell So Bad, Yet Taste So Good?

  1. The stir fried rice was the closest to replicating a restaurant dish ever, if I do say so myself. Thumbs up. I did have to soak the pan for about 2 days to get the semi-burned rice off the bottom, but it was totally worth it. Perhaps my next kitchen purchase will be a giant wok. Oh the possibilities!

  2. Hola! I’ve been reading your website for a long time now
    and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout
    out from Houston Tx! Just wanted to mention keep up the fantastic work!

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