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What Is Fish Sauce?

Fish sauce is a magical ingredient that enhances the taste of many Asian recipes.

Melanie Rockett
Sep 6 · 4 min read

Find out how fish sauce is made and how to choose the best fish sauce.

Fish sauce is a liquid condiment made from fish or krill that have been coated in salt and fermented for up to two years. It is used as a staple seasoning in East Asian cuisine and Southeast Asian cuisine, particularly Burma, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Following widespread recognition of its ability to impart a savory umami flavor to dishes, it has been embraced globally by chefs and home cooks. The umami flavor in fish sauce is due to its glutamate content.

Soy sauce is regarded by some in the West as a vegetarian alternative to fish sauce though they are very different in flavor.

Fish sauce is not only added to dishes as a seasoning, but also used as a base in dipping sauces.

How Is Fish Sauce Made?

The two main ingredients of fish sauce are small salt water or fresh water fish about 3 to 5 inches in length. But it is NOT just a matter of combining salt and fish and bottling the results. The special fish sauce flavor comes from the fermentation process that can take anywhere from several months and up to three years.

Premium aged fish sauces are very flavorful and sweet without a heavy fish smell.

A variety of freshly caught fish are mixed with salt in huge vats. For example, a 1000 kilogram batch of fish would be mixed with 200 kilograms of sea salt and will eventually produce about 1,000 liters of sauce.

In the traditional method of producing quality fish sauce, a variety of small fish is mixed with salt in huge vats.

Over a period of about six months the fish breaks down into a slurry. This slurry is then strained, allowing the liquid to drip out. Some manufacturers press the sauce out in order to fast track the results.

The extracted liquid becomes the sauce. The left over solids are sold to pig farmers.

Now comes the fermentation process. The liquid is transferred to shallow containers which are set out in the sun. As the watery part of the liquid evaporates, a thin salt crust will form on the surface. This can take anywhere from a week to a month.

The sauce is then moved to ceramic urns or plastic barrels to age. Depending on the manufacturer, the sauce is aged anywhere from two or three months to three years. The flavor changes as it ages … becoming sweeter and less salty as it gets older.

That’s the traditional method. It is labor and time intensive but produces a superior tasting fish sauce. Modern methods include the introduction on enzymes to hasten the breakdown of the salted fish into a slurry, as well as fast track fermentation and extraction processes.

Cheap and poor quality sauces are made by grinding dried fish, mixing the fish powder with salt and calling it “fish sauce.” Even worse are the chemical concoctions that don’t contain any fish!

Where Is Fish Sauce Made?

Some of the BEST fish sauces are made in Thailand and Vietnam using the traditional methods. Most Asian countries produce fish sauce of different flavors: Burma, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, and Taiwan.

How to Choose A Good Fish Sauce

According to …

“Phu Quoc, the Vietnamese island just off the mainland’s southwestern coast — is considered to be the source of some of the world’s highest quality fish sauce, but Thailand produces most of what’s sold in U.S. stores.

Vietnamese fish sauce tends to be lighter and sweeter, Thai skews saltier, and Filipino fish sauce is heavier, each reflecting and complementing the cuisines themselves, Nguyen says.

So, if you cook a lot of Thai food, a Thai fish sauce might make sense. If you’re looking for a universal, “very friendly” fish sauce, Vietnamese is a good bet, Nguyen says. Ultimately, it’s up to your palate.”

When choosing a good quality fish sauce look at the list of ingredients. Traditional sauces use only two ingredients: fish and salt. As the ingredient list increases, the quality of the sauce decreases.

For example, MSG is a flavor enhancer that affects blood pressure. Many people are allergic to it, so be careful!

My Top Choice is Red Boat Fish Sauce which is made using traditional chemical-free fermentation methods. This unique two hundred year-old artisanal process uses only the freshest fish, salted minutes after leaving the sea then aged for over a year in traditional wooden barrels. Red Boat is pure, 100% all natural first press “extra virgin” Vietnamese fish sauce. made form only two ingredients it is free from added water, MSG and preservatives.

This article was originally published on the

Melanie Rockett has been a freelance writer for over 40 years. About 15 years ago she was diagnosed with Diabetes — and began a long journey of discovery. Today she lives a sugar-free life and has lost 120 pounds. Her website is all about living sugar-free and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

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Melanie Rockett

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Freelance writer for 40+ years. Blogs at (How To Sell More Books) and (Living A Sugar Free Life)


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