Though fish sauce is a new concept in Western cooking, fish sauce has been used in Southeastern Asian cooking for hundreds of years. Though the origins of fish sauce are not completely known, it is believed that, during the ancient times, the Vietnamese got inspiration for the modern Asian fish sauce from the Chinese soy sauce (1).
Many Westerners have heard of fish sauce and use it in modern-day cooking, but still do not know what it is. Fish sauce is a popular sauce used in Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, and Myanmar, and consists of combining together either whole sardines “Ishiru” or squid guts “Yoshiru” and salt (2).
If using Ishiru, 18% salt is added and then fermented for 24 months, whereas if using Yoshiru, 20% salt is added and then fermented for 6-12 months. Once complete, the fish sauce, or “Nuoc Nam” is the resulting product.
Fish sauce has many possibilities when it comes to cooking, both in Asian and non-Asian dishes. Some non-Asian dishes and meals that incorporate fish sauce include chicken stock, vinaigrettes, meat marinades, on vegetables, salsa verdes, and soups.
Many Asian dishes that contain fish sauce are Pho, Thai curries, Som Tum (Thai papaya salad), Vietnamese vermicelli salad, many pickled vegetables and fruits, Kuaytiaw Reua (Thai boat noodle soup), soba salad, Pad Thai, as a dipping sauce for spring rolls, and many other dishes (3, 4, 5).
While fish sauce is light and adds bursts of flavor and a hint of acidity to any dish, it is incredibly high in sodium, which can exacerbate the symptoms of many disease states, including heart disease.
Due to this, many people should be careful when adding any fish sauce to their meals, for a little goes a long way. Therefore, incorporating a healthier or less salty substitution into your diet could still provide you with the flavor and delicious taste of fish sauce.
1. Low-Sodium Soy Sauce + Lime Juice
Low-sodium soy sauce is a great alternative to fish sauce because the amount of sodium in one serving runs around 500-540 mg, whereas the sodium content in one serving of fish sauce is typically between 1400-1700 mg.
Lime juice adds the acidity that is typically found in light Vietnamese and Thai dishes, yet contains no sodium, is light, refreshing, and is bursting with flavor.
When combined at a 1:3 ratio, a sauce that contains both low-sodium soy sauce and lime juice is going to taste zesty, smoky, peppery, sour, lightly sweet, and will still carry the salty taste that so many people love about fish sauce. This combination sauce would pair well as a dipping sauce for spring rolls or as a sauce to drizzle over Vietnamese vermicelli salad.
Soy sauce in general is a perfect vegan substitute for fish sauce. It can be used in many vegan and vegetarian dishes.
2. Low-Sodium Soy Sauce + White Rice Vinegar
White rice vinegar is the fermentation of rice to alcohol to acid and has a sweet taste, adding a zing to cooking. It is typically used in marinades, sauces, dressings, and in mixtures for pickling vegetables. When combined with low-sodium soy sauce at a 50:50 ratio, an immense explosion of flavor will ensue, adding a sweet, sour, light, salty, smoky, and savory taste to any dish.
This wonderful combination can be used in almost any dish that fish sauce is used in, such as in Thai papaya salad, Vietnamese vermicelli salad, and even as a refreshing dip for spring rolls and raw vegetables.
3. Worcestershire Sauce
Worcestershire sauce is a household favorite, flooding the pantries of 98% of American households, though many individuals who use it regularly do not know exactly what it is, only knowing of it’s flavorful and savory existence (6).
It typically contains vinegar, fermented onions, fermented garlic, molasses, tamarind paste, salt, sugar, cured anchovies, and various herbs and spices.
The flavor of worcestershire sauce is complex, bringing about a savory, sweet, and tangy flavor, and its distinct umami taste makes it an excellent option for making marinades and sauces. All you need is a small amount to bring about the exquisite flavors of fish sauce.
4. Oyster Sauce
Oyster sauce is exactly how it sounds; sauce made from oysters. It is dark brown in color, made from not only oysters, but includes sugar, salt, water, and cornstarch. Oyster sauce has an earthy, somewhat sweet, and salty taste, bursting with a savory flavor.
It is typically added to replace other sauces, drizzled on top of cooked vegetables, added to stir-fries, or used as a marinade. When cooking with oyster sauce, a little goes a long way, for it tends to be a powerful sauce. You can combine it with soy sauce and white rice vinegar to give it a thinner consistency and to make it an excellent dipping sauce!
5. Tamarind Juice
Tamarind juice comes from bean-pods from the tamarind tree, which contain pulp that enclose black seeds (7, 8).
The pulp, which is used to make the juice, is sweet, sour, and fruity, making it a refreshing and flavorful addition to many dishes. Tamarind juice is typically used in curries, chutneys, rice dishes, or is added in sauces and marinades for pork, fowl, and fish, and many individuals in South America and Central America use it as an addition in crisp cocktails. The explosive flavor of this juice makes it an excellent alternative to fish sauce.
6. Anchovy Paste
Anchovy paste is a thick greyish paste made by combining anchovies, salt, and olive oil. It is thicker than fish sauce, but it’s savory and umami flavor and taste profile is very similar, though you must be careful when using anchovy paste as a replacement.
It’s umami taste can become incredibly overwhelming if used in excess, for just 1/2 tbsp mixed with water can add all the flavor and savory goodness of fish sauce. You can use anchovy paste as a condiment, in marmalades, marinades, and sauces, or in pasta dishes.