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Fish sauce is an amber-colored liquid extracted from the fermentation of fish with sea salt. It is used as a condiment in various cuisines. Fish sauce is a staple ingredient in numerous cultures in Southeast Asia and the coastal regions of East Asia, and featured heavily in Cambodian, Philippine, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisine.
In addition to being added to dishes during the cooking process, fish sauce is also used as a base for a dipping condiment that is prepared in many different ways by cooks in each country mentioned for fish, shrimp, pork, and chicken. In parts of southern China, it is used as an ingredient for soups and casseroles. Fish sauce, and its derivatives, impart an umami flavor to food due to their glutamate content.
Most fish sauces (extracts) are made from raw fish, some from dried fish; most from only a single species, others from whatever is dredged up in the net, including some shellfish; most from whole fish, a few from only the blood or viscera. Most fish sauces contain only fish and salt, others add a variety of herbs and spices. Fish sauce that has been only briefly fermented has a pronounced fishy taste, while extended fermentation reduces this and gives the product a nuttier, richer and more savory flavor.
Southeast Asian fish sauce is often made from anchovies, salt and water, and is usually used in moderation because it is intensely flavoured. Anchovies and salt are arranged in wooden boxes to ferment and are slowly pressed, yielding the salty, fishy liquid. The salt extracts the liquid via osmosis.
The variety from Vietnam is called nước mắm. Popular brands include nước mắm Phú Quốc and nước mắm Phan Thiết. Nước chấm is a Vietnamese prepared fish sauce condiment dipping sauce that is savory, lightly sweet and salty tasting, and can even be sour and spicy if lime and chili peppers are added. The main components are fish sauce, water, and sugar. In Vietnam, there is a popular food item called mắm, which is made the same way as fish sauce, except that both the fish and the liquid extract, not just the liquid, are kept, and mắm is fermented for a shorter period than fish sauce. Mắm is either eaten as is (uncooked), or cooked in soups or stir-fries. Similar condiments from Thailand and Burma are called nam pla (น้ำปลา) and ngan bya yay (ငံပြာရည်) respectively. In Lao/Isan it is called nam pa, but a chunkier, more aromatic version known as padaek is also used. In Cambodia, it is known as teuk trei (ទឹកត្រី), of which there are a variety of sauces using fish sauce as a base.
The similar Philippine version common to Indochina is called patis. Patis, a by-product of bagoong, is nearly always cooked prior to consumption, even when used as an accent to salads or other raw dishes. Patis is also used as an ingredient in cooked dishes, including a rice porridge called arroz caldo and as a condiment for fried fish. Patis is also used in place of table salt in meals to enhance the flavor of the food, where it can either be dashed from a dispensing bottle onto the food, or poured into a saucer and mixed with calamansi and used as a dipping sauce.
Southeast Asians generally use fish sauce as a cooking sauce. However, there is a sweet and sour version of this sauce which is used more commonly as a dipping sauce (see nước chấm). In Thai cuisine, fish sauce is used both in cooking and also served at the table for use as a condiment, for instance in noodle soups. In addition, nearly every Thai meal is served with phrik nam pla as a condiment: a mixture of fish sauce, lime juice, and chopped bird's eye chilies. Very often a few slices of garlic are also added to this sauce.
It is mainly the ethnic Chinese (usually Hokkien and Teochew) who cook with fish sauce (鱼露 yúlù, 虾油 xīayú in Hokkien) in Indonesia and Malaysia. Fish sauce is a staple of many dishes in cuisines such as Vietnamese, Thai and Cambodian.
In Japan, it is used as a seasoning of local specialties. Ishiru in the Noto Peninsula is made from sardine and squid. Shottsuru of Akita Prefecture is chiefly made from sailfin sandfish. Ikanago shoyu of Kagawa Prefecture is made from sand lance. They are often reserved for the preparation of nabemono.
In Korea, it is called aekjeot or jeotgal, and is used as a crucial ingredient in many types of kimchi (usually from myoelchi, anchovy or kanari which is made from sand lance), both for taste and fermentation. The anchovy-based fish sauce lends itself well to the making of radish-type kimchi. Kanari-type fish sauce is more expensive than the anchovy-based fish sauce and is usually reserved for the preparation of special cabbage (baechu) kimchi. Saewoojeot (shrimp) is also popular as side sauce.
Fish sauces are sometimes used in western cuisine, but they are generally prepared using fresh or packaged fish, not made from fermented fish.
A similar fish sauce was ubiquitous in Classical Roman cooking, where in Latin it is known as garum or liquamen, and also existed in many varieties such as oenogarum (mixed with wine), oxygarum (mixed with vinegar) and meligarum (mixed with honey). It was one of the trade specialties in Hispania Baetica. It was made of a variety of fish including tuna, mackerel, moray eel, and anchovies. Garum was frequently maligned as smelling bad or rotten, being called, for example, "evil-smelling fish sauce." "Garum" is said to be similar to modern colatura d'alici, a fish sauce used in Neapolitan cuisine.
An assortment of prepared fish sauces in Thailand
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