3 Types Of Fish Sauce And What To Use Them For

Its origin story has the potential to lead more conservative diners running for the hills, but fish sauce, the condiment made from fermented anchovy, has more fans than some could probably imagine. While fish sauce is most popularly produced across Southeast Asia today, its roots are much deeper; MasterClass says traces of fish sauce can be found not only in China but in ancient Rome, where it was known as "garum." 

The amber-colored liquid might not look like it, but fish sauce is exactly as advertised. Per the South China Morning Post, the pungent condiment is made by combining fish with salt, then allowing this mixture to sit for a few months to give the ingredients a chance to ferment and transform into the pungent, umami-flavored liquid prized by chefs around the world. Depending on its grade, fish sauce can be used as a dipping sauce, used to create marinades and condiments, or cooked into a meat or vegetable sauce.

MasterClass categorizes the different types of fish sauce according to country: nuoc mam from Vietnam, nam pla from Thailand, and patis from the Philippines. But the differences cannot be explained by their countries of origin alone.

Vietnam's Nuoc mam is highly regarded

In 2010, The Washington Post looked into claims that some of the best fish sauce in the world comes from Phu Quoc, which is off Vietnam's southwest coast, and where fish sauce is made in wooden barrels, in much the same way prized wines may be made in Europe; that claim to excellence continues to be repeated by fish sauce fans today. In Phu Quoc, manufacturers pride themselves on making fish sauce in the same way as Italians take pride in their olive oil, and like the Italians, the Vietnamese have developed a grading system for their fish sauce. 

Nguyen Quoc-Thiet of the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology told the Washington Post, "Good nuoc mam should be transparent. You should be able to see the other side of the bottle. It tastes salty at first, but the aftertaste is sweet."  

High-grade fish sauce is also represented by degrees (°N) on a label, per Hong Kong foodie Chan Tiu-Ming. He tells Michelin that "The higher the value, the higher the protein content and the umami, and the higher the price." Tiu-Ming explains that the high-value fish sauces deliver a ton of umami flavor and work best when they play a starring role in dipping sauces. The lower grades of fish sauce can be used for cooking since the protein found in the sauce is less sensitive to heat.

Thailand's Nam Pla can be used interchangeably with Vietnam's fish sauce

Most fish sauce sold in the United States comes from Thailand and is separated into different grades just like in Vietnam. Thai fish sauce or nam pla, and its quality depends on the time of extraction, per Cook's Info. After the fish is caught, they are bundled into clay jars with sea salt and in alternating layers until the jars have been filled, and then left to ferment between 9 to 12 months. Liquid is emitted as the fish decompose, and the first draw from these clay jars is considered to be the best fish sauce of the batch. 

Once the premium sauce is drawn, salt water is added to the jars and then left alone for another 2 to 3 months before a second grade of sauce is drawn. There is a third grade of sauce too, and Cook's Info says a higher grade sauce can be added to more inferior versions of the product to improve the flavor. Know Your Pantry says Thai and Vietnamese sauces of the same grade can be used interchangeably and in the same way, although MasterClass warns that Thai fish sauce can be saltier than the others. 

Philippines' Patis is an all-purpose sauce

Of the three southeast Asian countries that are known for their fish sauces, perhaps the least discriminating of the lot is the Philippines, whose fish sauce is graded not according to fermentation and extraction, but by brand. Pepper says Philippine fish sauce or 'patis' is made with round scad — which is a type of mackerel, per Fortuna Sea — and is not only used to make fish sauce but is cooked and consumed as a main dish too. Pepper further notes that fish sauce in the Philippines can also be defined as a by-product in the manufacture of "bagoong," or fermented fish. 

Philippine fish sauce manufacturers appear to be less fastidious than their Vietnamese and Thai counterparts in the manufacture of fish sauce. Most of the brands were dismissed as being "too salty," with little to no fish flavor at times. With the lack of distinction in either grade or flavor, Philippine sauces are used interchangeably both as dipping sauce mixed with the local citrus fruit "calamansi" and in cooking.