Written and illustrated by Misa Ono
Fish sauce is a seasoning sauce made from fish. It is used throughout Japan, China and South-east Asian countries. Fish sauce is a liquid extracted from salted fish, such as “Nuoc mam” in Vietnam and “Nam Pla” in Thailand. Although in Japan fish sauce is not as common as soy sauce, it has been traditionally made in some of its regions (*e.g.).
Fish gut contains an enzyme that decomposes the fish. The decompose starts after the fish is salted. The salt prevents increase of germs in the process. The fish turns into gooey liquid in about a year. The extract of the liquid is fish sauce. Wonder of microbes helps the fish enzyme further the self-decomposing process. Sometimes Koji is added together with the salt. The Koji affects how long the fermentation and aging periods of time. It keeps down smelly fishiness and enhances the taste and flavor.
To be honest, my first impression of fish sauce was “It stinks!” It is like cheese with strong aroma. There are various foods that “smells bad but tastes good”. Fish sauce should be one of them. You will love it as you get used to it despite the smell. It is like the classic movie or drama plot that falling in love with an absurd one you first hate. You get hooked to their outrageous behaviors. I like the combination of fish sauce and sesame oil. I enjoy it on tofu, or mixed with noodles.
These days there is seasoning sauce that is made like the combination of fish sauce and soy sauce. It is made by adding soy bean and wheat Koji, which are usually used for soy sauce, to salmon fish sauce in its making process. This creates seasoning sauce with umami of salmon and soy beans. How elaborate! Furthermore, its manufacturing time is reduced to 4 to 5 months. It is so beneficial! Soy sauce does not stop its evolution yet.
In addition, let me introduce you Japanese dried fish named “Kusaya”. Here is how it is made. Soak fish in fermented salty liquid smells like fish sauce, and lay them out under the sun to dry. It is served grilled. It reeks! It is my father’s favorite. I got so upset that we had a fight when he grilled it in home. Interestingly, I have acquired a taste for it as I have grown older. Now I can enjoy eating it. It is not just smelly. The fermented smell is delicious in taste!
(*e.g., Akita Prefecture’s “Shottsuru” made from sandfish, Ishikawa Prefecture’s “Ishiru” made from sardine, Kagawa Prefecture’s “Ikanago Sauce” made from sand eel)