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6.01.2005

On fame, funk, and fish sauce

It seems as though every food—almonds to zabaglione, frumpy to fancy—has its fifteen minutes of fame. Yesterday’s coffee is today’s tea; sushi cedes the spotlight to crudo; and pricey imported olive oil gives way to pricey domestic butter. Of this year’s “it” edibles, bacon has perhaps been the busiest on the scene, nabbing the title “best food in the world” in the March issue of Saveur, inspiring a fatty flurry of blogging, and finding its way into this and that, near and far. It’s on everyone’s lips; I long ago stopped counting the number of times I’d heard the exclamation, “Everything tastes better with bacon!” Now, granted, salt and smoke are sublime, but truth be told—no matter how shocking—I’m just not so interested. As far as I’m concerned, bacon has nothing on fish sauce, the newest “go-to” ingredient. I can’t avow that everything tastes better with the stuff, but I’d venture to say that almost everything does, especially when lime juice, garlic, chilies, and sugar are involved.

It may not sound or smell so appetizing, but fish sauce, also known in Thailand as nam pla and in Vietnam as nuoc mam, is the cornerstone of the intensely delicious cuisines of Southeast Asia. Fish sauce is high in umami, one of the five basic tastes recognized by the human tongue, along with saltiness, sourness, sweetness, and bitterness. Umami translates somewhat ambiguously to “savoriness,” though I’d describe it instead as a round, full flavor—the sort of sensation we experience when tasting Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, soy sauce, or mushrooms. Fish sauce adds depth, complexity, and an appealing funkiness to dishes, and when teamed and tempered with the right partners, it’s alarmingly difficult to stop eating. Take, for example, this simple rice noodle salad.



It’s tough to think of a better dinner for an almost-summer night: cool slippery noodles, green slivers of scallion and Napa cabbage, sweet carrot, salty peanuts, chopped cilantro, and chunks of roasted chicken, doused in a dance-on-the-tongue dressing that balances the pungency of fish sauce with the acidity of lime, the heat of chilies, and the sweetness of sugar. You may find yourself oddly tempted to dump the dressing over everything in sight, from plain greens to sliced cucumber, grilled fish, or a bowl of sticky rice; you may want a dab behind the ears, or a long soak in a bathtub full of it. But with a cold beer in one hand and a pair of chopsticks in the other, you’ll be too busy. Like everything else, fish sauce only gets fifteen minutes of fame, so there’s no time to waste.


Almost-Summer Rice Noodle Salad
Adapted from Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s Splendid Table Weeknight Kitchen e-mail newsletter

This salad is very versatile, and you can't go wrong with any variety of ingredients. Try using shrimp or roasted tofu in place of the chicken and roasted salted almonds instead of peanuts, or substitute basil for the cilantro. If you like, add slivered fresh spinach leaves, diced jicama, blanched and slivered snow peas, or a bit of julienned mint. The recipe makes quite a bit of dressing, so you’ll have some left over; it will keep in the refrigerator for several days and can be used to marinate poultry, beef, pork, or seafood before grilling.

1 pound thin rice noodles (roughly the thickness of linguine)
3 large cloves garlic, peeled
½ cup Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce
2/3 cup water
½ cup fresh lime juice
½ cup rice vinegar
¼ to ½ cup brown sugar, to taste
1 to 2 hot chilies (red bird, jalapeño, or serrano), seeded and minced, or to taste
6 to 8 leaves Napa cabbage, thinly sliced
8 scallions, thinly sliced
1 large carrot, peeled and shredded or julienned
½ cup tightly packed cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
2 grilled or roasted chicken breasts, shredded
1 cup salted peanuts, coarsely chopped

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the rice noodles and cook for 5 minutes, or until tender but not mushy. Drain the noodles into a colander, rinse with cold water, and then place them in a large bowl.

Place the garlic cloves in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse to mince. Add the fish sauce, water, lime juice, rice wine vinegar, brown sugar, and chilies, and purée them together. [The mixture will get quite frothy.] Taste, and if necessary, add more chile and adjust the sweet/tart balance. Pour the dressing into a serving bowl, and set it on the dining table.

Toss the vegetables and cilantro with the noodles, and mound the mixture on a platter. Scatter the chicken and peanuts over the top, and serve. Traditionally, this salad is eaten in individual bowls, so invite your dining partners to scoop their own portion from the platter and dress it as they see fit.

Serves 4-6.

37 Comments:

Blogger amylou said...

I went on a food tour a while back where the theme was umami. Turns out that straight MSG, if you're ever considering eating it, is really nasty.

Also, dare I ask, can you think of a substitute for fish sauce? I happen to have a package of rice noodles that just might like to be used in a vegetarian salad.

11:29 PM, June 01, 2005  
Blogger Niki said...

I would honestly have to say that there is no substitution for fish sauce. Nothing is similar to the strength of flavour it has.
I have a disgusting food habit I created at uni of 2 minute noodles, sprinkled with freshly grated parmesan cheese and splashes of fish sauce. Yes, I know it sounds revolting, but the saltiness of both works surprisngly well...to me, at least as an Australian surrounded by Asian food, but with an Italian family!

4:00 AM, June 02, 2005  
Blogger Zarah Maria said...

Oh. My. God. Molly, you've just made fish sauce sound - sexy. Fantastic. Irresistible. How DO you do it, woman?!:-)

6:04 AM, June 02, 2005  
Blogger tara said...

Molly, "appealing funkiness" made me grin. I never thought fish sauce could sound so very chic!

7:11 AM, June 02, 2005  
Blogger foodiechickie said...

That's funny. I've been speaking about bacon lately too. Whether it is Canadian or Irish.

I love Asian foods and always have a bottle of fish sauce in my fridge when I attempt to cook Asian cuisine.

Again great food blog.

8:08 AM, June 02, 2005  
Blogger Dawna said...

Ah, summer salads... I really must add this to my ever-expanding salad collection - I already have the fish sauce in the fridge! The addition of slivered mint sounds terrific, too.

I've recently become smitten with Japanese somen noodles, laced with sambal oelek, and a sort of Asian vinaigrette as a chilled noodle salad. It was what I had for dinner last night, actually... topped with some lightly cooked shrimp and some chicken-shiitake potstickers.

8:33 AM, June 02, 2005  
Blogger Michèle said...

There is something about both soy sauce and fish sauce that I find ridiculously addicting. As I read your post I could feel my mouth watering, begging for that saltiness.. It really is somewhat frightening. Im afraid that had I been anywhere near that bowl when you made it I would have devoured the whole thing. There would be no sharing. And I probably would have consumed all the beer too...
Oh wait. Maybe that's why no one invites me over for dinner anymore..

9:03 AM, June 02, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Yet another reason why I'm crazy about you, Amy: you're well-versed in the ways of umami. Thanks for the heads-up on MSG--I'll try to restrain myself! As for a vegetarian substitute for fish sauce, I agree with Niki that there's really no good substitute for its unique and pungent flavor, but from the bit of Googling I've just done, I see that a common substitute is soy sauce. One site referred to using a "light" soy sauce and another a mushroom soy sauce, but I think the most important thing is to use a *Thai* soy sauce, as opposed to Chinese or Japanese. Go forth and substitute.

Niki, your "disgusting food habit" sounds pretty intriguing, actually. Two sources of umami in one dish...you might be onto something!

And thank you, Zarah Maria! You know, I do what I can, and if irresistible fantastic sexiness comes through, well, all the better...

Tara, I had fun coming up with "appealing funkiness," so I'm glad you appreciated it. Really, it IS funky, but so, so appealing.
Maybe even chic!

Foodiechickie, thank you. Enjoy your bacon and fish sauce...

Dawna, your noodles with sambal oelek sound wonderful! Any chance you'd be willing to share your formula?

Michele, I have plenty of beer in the fridge, and there's a package of rice noodles in the cabinet. Just let me know when you want to come for dinner...

1:02 PM, June 02, 2005  
Anonymous A Wonderfully Food Obsessed New Yorker said...

The "I Don't Eat Meat Cause I'm a Veterinarian" Approach to Fish Sauce

Fish sauce is basically condensed fermented anchovie (or other small fish) stock, salt, and sugar.

So...

Use Braggs Amino Liquid which is made from fremented soy paste. Add 2TBSP of the Braggs Amino Liquid with a little soy sauce and sugar.
-or-
Mix 2TBSP of Miso(try out different strengths) or Jiang paste with salt (or a little soy sauce) and sugar.
-or-
Vegetarian Fish Sauce Substitute
(from the Sundays at Moosewood cookbook)
make a strong vegetable stock that is heavy on onions and black peppercorns. for each 2 tbsp of fish sauce called for, substitute 2 tbsp. of the stock plus 1/2 to 1 tsp. of salt.

No offense to Moosewood but I would suggest one of the fermented soy bean menthods since an intense salty fermented taste is what fish sauce is used for....also fermented soy products have a nice kick of umami.

So for my Final Suggestion...(drum roll please)

Use the first method but add
Dried Shitake Mushrooms to the Braggs Amino Liquid and let soak for a while...the dried mushrooms add a double kick of Umami

----
And Molly your site is amazing--it has quite possibly changed my life...

2:28 PM, June 02, 2005  
Anonymous Julie said...

It's a strange thing. There you are, on the other side of the country, and yet quite often I'm cooking something similar to you. Some of it can be accounted for by our mutual love of seasonal food. However, fish sauce doesn't really fall into that category. Last night I opened my first bottle of the stuff, to include in an improv chicken yakisoba stir-fry (sort of a warm version of your salad with different veg)and to make dipping sauce for dumplings. I immediately fell in love with the stuff. Go figure.

3:15 PM, June 02, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Congratulations on this most happy of occasions, Wonderfully Food-Obsessed New Yorker: it's your first comment! I should have known that you would chime in to share your knowledge of all things highly flavored. And Orangette has quite possibly changed your life? I know. That makes two of us, mon vieux. [P.S. Amy, are you reading this? Try his suggestions....]

And Julie, as for our simultaneous fish sauce-ing, well, we both have exceptional taste. Obviously. Now, did you save a dumpling for me?

3:52 PM, June 02, 2005  
Blogger Dawna said...

Molly, of course I'll share the formula! If you'll pardon the ridiculous plug for my site... Spicy Soba

Last night I used about 200 grams of somen, and had to add about a quarter cup of noodle-water to get them just right, although a little fish sauce might have done the trick!

4:16 PM, June 02, 2005  
Blogger megwoo said...

Oh Molly, forsaking the bacon?!
Ah well, fish sauce can be sublime... but bacon will always be my 'it' girl.

:)

4:47 PM, June 02, 2005  
Anonymous Julie said...

Sadly I confess that I did not save a dumpling for you last night. BUT if and when you come to NYC, I will gladly show you one of the city's best deals -- five gorgeous fresh handmade-and-fried-in-front-of-your-eyes pork and leek dumplings for the price of ONE DOLLAR, sold in the eponymous Chinatown hole-in-the-wall known as "Fried Dumpling".

I keep a whole bag of them in my freezer, since the nice ladies who make them sell frozen bags of 30. They're almost as good steamed and fried at home as when you get them on that little street in Chinatown...

7:45 PM, June 02, 2005  
Blogger stef said...

I was tempted to try that recipe, Molly, but I decided to make a summer salad with the same seasonings - fish sauce, cilantro, drop of sesame oil, red shallots, lime juice and some palm sugar. I made a cucumber salad with dried shrimp. Almost like a green papaya salad.

I agree, it is hard to find a vegetarian substitute for such a daringly bold condiment.

10:17 PM, June 02, 2005  
Blogger amylou said...

Yes Molly, I'm reading this. Thank you Mr. Wonderfully Food Obsessed New Yorker! I actually have some fermented tofu in the fridge and had no idea what to do with the intense stuff. Maybe that could also come into play in the vege fish sauce.

7:40 AM, June 03, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Thanks for the spicy soba details, Dawna! Time to get out the sambal oelek and put some water on to boil...

And mw, I'm sorry if I shocked you with my bacon confession! I'm not anti-bacon, don't worry; it just doesn't turn my head. On the bright side, though, that leaves more for you!

Julie, those dumplings sound *incredible.* If I wasn't drooling before, I am now. And as fate would have it, I'm coming to NY sooner than you'd think...only six days from today, actually! It already looks to be a pretty packed trip, though, but I'll be back there soon enough...can I take a rain check?

And Stef, your salad sounds fantastic! You should have stuck some in a cab and sent it across town to me...

And Amy, good luck, m'dear.

8:50 AM, June 03, 2005  
Anonymous T said...

As a good Thai girl and avowed lover of all things nam pla, I just wanted to give a shout out to my favorite brand--Squid Brand. If you like your fish sauce on the sweeter side (my mum calls this "Vietnamese style"), I highly suggest Three Crab nuoc mam.

I also highly suggest eating green (unripened) mango with nam pla--some people will add a little sugar or lime to this as well.

1:22 PM, June 03, 2005  
Anonymous LB said...

Molly, I followed your recipe the other day and the salad was easy to assemble, fresh + flavorful, with a wonderful blend of textures. Thank you! LB

1:19 AM, June 05, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Thanks so much for the suggestions, T. If you'd believe it, I actually have both Three Crabs and Squid in my kitchen as I type this...when it comes to fish sauce, it looks like it's a small world! As for the green mango, it sounds delicious. I'd heard of green papaya, but not green mango. I wonder if I could dredge some up in the International District...

And LB, thank you for the feedback. I'm thrilled to know that you enjoyed it!

12:41 PM, June 05, 2005  
Blogger McAuliflower said...

Dang- am I the only person whose childhood task of dishing out the wet cat food has ruined any chances of me accepting fish sauce with open arms?

sigh

7:07 PM, June 05, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

McAuliflower, you might well be doomed. However, I do think that canned cat food and fish sauce smell quite different--and actually, fish sauce smells *worse.* Damn tasty, though!

10:33 PM, June 05, 2005  
Anonymous bittysid said...

I have a favorite recipe stolen from the lads at Noodle Ranch that is good on everything from thinly sliced red cabbage mixed with mint, crushed peanuts and diced cucumbers to shallot and red curry basted grilled chix over rice noodles with cilantro and thai basil (and more peanuts for crunch).

Here goes:
1/2 cp H20
1/2 cp fish sauce
1/4 cp lime juice (fresh, but of course)
1 tsp of hot chili sauce (or more, I use sambal oelek)
1 clove of garlic minced
1 Tbsp sugar

Put it all in a jar and shake up - pour over any and all things. YOu can add more or less juice/fish sauce ratio to taste. Will last for about a week in the fridge. I am a saltaholic so this sauce is my best friend come summer. Molly, you are the best and an inspiration to cooks everywhere!!! Thanks for the fabulous blog.

12:18 PM, June 14, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Bittysid, thanks for your wonderfully refreshing-sounding recipe! That red cabbage salad sounds delicious...it's officially been added to the "must try" list.

7:47 AM, June 15, 2005  
Anonymous Anjali said...

Finally, fish sauce gets the admiration it deserves! My dad is Thai, so I grew up eating copious amounts of fish sauce. My mom is convinced that Asian kids like vegetables more than American kids because they grow up eating veggies cooked in fish sauce. I have to agree that broccoli stir-fried with lots of garlic and fish sauce beats the limp steamed version.

My quick comfort dinner is stir-fried bitter greens (Chinese or Thai broccoli), Thai omelette and rice. For a pound of greens, I fry 4 or 5 (or 6...) cloves of chopped garlic in a couple tablespoons of oil, then add the washed, chopped vegetables. On top of that, I pour a mixture of 2 Tbsp oyster sauce, 1 Tbsp fish sauce, 1 tsp of sugar and 2 Tbsp water, and stir-fry on high heat until it's done.

A Thai omelette is just a regular omelette with fish sauce and green onions instead of milk. (About 1.5 tsp fish sauce for every 2 eggs.)

Yummy, quick and full of umami!

12:45 AM, January 26, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Wow, Anjali - thank you for the wonderful greens and omelette ideas! Mmm, two of my favorite things. I've been wanting to try a Thai omelette for a while, actually, and your comment is a very, very welcome nudge...

4:09 PM, February 10, 2006  
Blogger cesar said...

So yesterday I just unwrapped the latest issue of The Art of Eating and what did I find but an article on umami. It sounded oddly familiar and then I remember reading this post and this thread...looks like once again you're on the leading edge of the foodie publishing world. Also, pretty much every suggestion put forth by these other, clearly food obsessed, folks is pretty spot on. I will say that bacon and other cured pork is actually pretty high in umami as well. Opportunities for synergy abound and tonight I will make noodles with pork and fish sauce!

12:51 PM, July 06, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Cesar, I'll have to go in search of that issue of The Art of Eating - it sounds very interesting! And in the meantime, I'll be wishing I were eating some of your noodles with pork and fish sauce...

5:04 PM, July 06, 2006  
Anonymous Covert Cheff said...

For a long time, my friend would comment on the "dangers" of using "too much" fish sauce. For him, there is a point where the funk becomes overwhelming. Because of the way it is aged, in wooden casks like wine but with fish bits instead of grapes, it too can trap some pretty noxious gasses (hydrogen sulfide), not at all an intentional part of UMAMI. Partly due to his objections, I worked to find a way to improve this. To reduce these possibly undesirable components of fish sauce, just sprinkle the required amount of fish sauce onto a very WARM but not flaming hot saucepan. Test to make sure it gently sizzles. As soon as it comes across the boil, remove from heat (don't burn it!), cut with a sprinkle of water to return to original strength, and WALA! You have all the savory notes without the slightly off nose of gym sox coupled with Terrence and Phillip jokes.

Incidentally, there IS a replacement for fish sauce that is 100% vegetarian. In a market where I live is a store called UWAJIMAYA. There they sell a big bag of these mushroom extract pellets. I think the price is around $15, and even with liberal use it lasts a year. Dissolved in a bit of liquid, it is SUPERIOR to fish sauce, in my estimation. It is touted as a "non-MSG" flavoring. It is essentially dried mushroom stock and salt.

Enjoy!

http://www.uwajimaya.com/

4:10 PM, September 13, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Thanks for the great tips, Covert Cheff! We have an Uwajimaya here too, and I'll be sure to look for those mushroom extract pellets. So good to know about...

4:35 PM, September 13, 2006  
Anonymous Scott said...

It's good to see people embracing the glory of fish sauce. The problem now for me is that I was recently put on a very low salt diet, so all these wonderful fish sauce dishes are unavailable to me until I come up with a sodium-free (or nearly so) substitute for nam pla. The trouble is, salt is such an integral part of the sauce's flavor that I don't see how it will be possible.

In any event, thanks for your well-crafted evangelism of such a wonderful aspect of asian cuisine!

10:06 PM, November 01, 2006  
Anonymous kayenne said...

Hmm... i don't know why, but i'm sure you can find fish sauce that doesn't contain msg. ours listed ingredients as Fermented Round Scad Fish Extract, Iodized Salt, Caramel and Potassium Sorbate(as preservative). It's a local Philippine brand though and fish sace or "patis" as we call it, ranks up there with sugar cane vinegar as the dip and seasoning of choice.

add a squeeze of calamansi(philippine lemon) or lime, and it's great served alongside fried fish.

Julie got it right...some chopped garlic and sugar, and it's great with dumplings...or fried porkchops!

if people think fish sauce stinks... they should try shrimp paste! stinky, but yummy! especially with green mangoes!

2:16 AM, November 05, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have just discovered your blog...it's wonderful. I'd never heard about umami before but I seem to be a big fan. I love bacon, parmesan, mushrooms and I absolutely love fish sauce. I usually don't admit to using fish sauce because it does smell bad when you stick your nose up to the bottle. But now I might divulge my secret ingredient to all my non-foodie friends. Thanks for writing about and sharing all this tasty stuff. Love your style.

6:26 AM, May 01, 2007  
Blogger angry! said...

Great bloGGG!!

What is your favorite brand of fish sauce?? Just curious, I have gotten some conflicting opinions.

6:14 PM, January 11, 2008  
Blogger David said...

I'm an ex-pat living in Thailand. While visiting my Peace Corps volunteer parents in Ukraine, I find myself needing a substitute for fish sauce so I can make real Thai curry for a dinner party. I have all the other ingredients I need, including kaffir lime leaf, lemon grass, and panang paste from a local market. Soy sauce is good, but I agree with Niki that it alone is not sufficient to reproduce the flavor accurately.
I have therefore blended a couple canned anchovies (or something like them - the label is in Cyrillic, so I'm not sure) with a quarter cup of mushroom soy sauce and a tablespoon of water ... it's very close to reproducing fish sauce. I wish I could find some fermented beans like the vegetarians suggested, but if I could find those around here I could probably find fish sauce. Thanks, everyone, for your suggestions.

6:35 AM, April 01, 2008  
Blogger Allison said...

I've always meant to comment and IT'S FINALLY TIME! I made this recipe over the weekend for a picnic and it was delicious. We had some leftovers and heated them up for dinner last night and they were equally as good served hot. Thanks, Molly!

3:25 PM, October 20, 2008  
Blogger pastamasta said...

New to the blog....wonderful !!!

12:14 PM, April 04, 2009  

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