Sunday, January 23, 2011

All About Fish Sauce (Nam Pla)

What is Fish Sauce?:

Fish Sauce, or "Nam Pla" in Thai, is one of the basic ingredients in Thai cooking. It has a rich translucent reddish-golden brown color, and is used liberally in nearly all Thai dishes. It is often used as a marinade for fish and meat, as well as a condiment (usually mixed with fresh-cut chilies and lime juice) - you may have come across this "sauce" on tables in Thai restaurants. In fact, Thais would add a little fish sauce to their meal the same way we would use salt and pepper.

What is Fish Sauce Made of?:

Good fish sauces are made from a mixture of fish and salt that has been allowed to ferment for 1 year to 18 months. Anchovies are typically used, although some fish sauces are also made from other types of fish or squid. The basic ingredients of a good fish sauce are: fish, water, and salt. Sugar may also be added, but isn't necessary.

Where Can I Buy Fish Sauce?:

These days, some of the larger grocery chains are starting to carry fish sauce (in their Asian section); however, I find the type they sell to be watered down and not nearly as authentic or tasty as the type sold in Asian food stores. You'll find a good selection of fish sauces at nearly any Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai food store. Look for tall bottles with "Fish Sauce" and the ingredients displayed on the label (fish extract, salt, and water - other ingredients aren't necessary). Look for fish sauce made in Thailand or Vietnam.

What Can Vegetarians use as a Substitute for Fish Sauce?:

Vegetarian fish sauce exists - and it's quite good! So far I've yet to find it in a Thai food store, but nearly all the Vietnamese food stores carry it. Sometimes it's difficult to tell whether a store is Vietnamese-owned or Chinese, Thai, etc... - you just have to go in and poke around, and don't be shy to ask for it. Some store owners will order it in for you if they don't have it. What are ingredients of Vegetarian Fish Sauce? They vary, but usually it's a mixture of soy beans, salt, sugar, water, chili, and citric acid as a preservative (since this type isn't fermented).

Fish Sauce & Sodium: What to Do if You're Worried About Salt Intake?:

For those who are concerned about their sodium intake, using fish sauce can be a bit of a dilemma. Not to worry. While the sodium content of fish sauce seems outrageous when you look at the serving size on the label, remember this amount will be distributed throughout the dish you're cooking (for example, a Thai curry), so you won't be consuming all of it - at least not in one portion or sitting. Add only a portion of the fish sauce called for in the recipe, then top up the remainder with sea salt. Sea salt has only a portion of the sodium found in regular table salt, and is much better for you in other ways too.

How Do I Store my Fish Sauce, and How Long Will it Keep?:

Fish sauce is fermented, and therefore does not require refrigeration (saves you fridge space!). It will keep indefinitely. Vegetarian fish sauce contains citric acid (vitamin C), so it doesn't need to be kept in the refrigerator either. A cool, dark place is probably best, like a cupboard near the stove so your fish sauce is close at hand when you're cooking. Enjoy!

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