Welcome to Hey Chef, a series where we ask pros around the country for tips on how to use ingredients we love. Today, let's funk things up with fish sauce.
Once you start using fish sauce, it can be tough to stop yourself from tossing it into everything. Made from salted and feremented anchovy juice, the umami-bomb effect of this Southeast Asian condiment is unparalleled, and plenty of chefs have told me they "use it like salt."
But when starting out, it's easy to go way overboard, scarring potential fish sauce fans to the point of abandonment. So we talked with some fish sauce-loving chefs about some smart ways to share the fish sauce funk without making your dinner smell like a stinky barge.
Add Oomph to Mignonette
We're primarily a raw bar, and I make our house mignonette with fish sauce—a secret ingredient no one can really pick out. Really good fish sauce can be used as a seasoning tool like anchovies. Start with very small quantities since a little bit can go a long way. Experimenting with brands is the key—we love Red Boat—and obviously the better quality of the fish sauce, the better your result.
Balance Bitter Veggies
I kind of have to stop myself from putting fish sauce in everything! One of my favorite things is to take rapini—which I think a lot of times is too intense a green vegetable—and sauté it with onions, then add a little hit of malt vinegar and fish sauce. It's kind of an unexpected flavor craziness, because you have the salty fish sauce (a little like soy sauce), the acidity from the malt vinegar, the bitterness from the rapini, and the sweetness from the onions.
I wouldn't put a little ramekin of fish sauce next to a finished dish, but a little bit does a lot. You may need to try some brands to find your favorite; mine is Three Crabs, but different chefs have their own.
Grill Up Some Liver
Chef Annie Pettry grew up gardening, foraging, and fishing in her home town of Asheville, North Carolina, and made some serious cooking stops before landing at Decca Restaurant in Louisville. A 2014 Starchefs Rising Star, her menu relies on the diverse products of Kentucky agriculture.
I especially love it in marinades for grilled chicken livers. Whisk together some chopped ginger, garlic, olive oil, and lime zest with a few drops of fish sauce. There's something about fish sauce that makes chicken livers taste so savory and delicious.
Southern Tomato Gravy
At Proof on Main in the 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, KY, executive chef Levon Wallace features a seasonally inspired menu that references the culinary traditions of the American South.
I was mindlessly walking around the Asian supermarket and came across a multi-pack of little baby fish sauce bottles—like airport booze size—that I bought for stocking stuffers. Love it.
The deep, funky, umami flavors of fish sauce come out particularly well in cooked and raw tomato applications. The other day I had a tomato-mayo sandwich and I sprinkled a few drops of fish sauce on top. It was ridiculously good.
Here in the South we make tomato gravy, which is incredible on grits or cornmeal biscuits. It's savory and a little sweet, and the addition of fish sauce takes it to a new level, making it almost scream for country ham. Basically you make a roux (like you do with any good Southern gravy) and add canned tomatoes (that you canned yourself, of course...though a little tomato paste and high-quality canned San Marzano's work well, too). Caramelize them until a deep burgundy. Then it depends on which way you wanna go; if you wanna go smoky, add some pork or roasted chicken stock. If you want to go creamy, add milk. I like to do mine with chicken stock so that I can save the porkiness for the country ham later. Then you let that cook and cook until you hit that magic point of intense, rich, deep flavor. Then add a few drops of fish sauce—it brings everything forward.
Amp Up Grilled Chicken
Chef Jonathan Benno worked in high positions at such esteemed restaurants as Daniel, Craft, The French Laundry and Per Se before opening Lincoln Ristorante in the heart of New York's Lincoln Center, where his Italian cuisine is familiar and comforting, yet highly refined and inventive.
Fish sauce is kind of like sriracha here—one of the standard ingredients in most of our family meals. We use Red Boat, which is really clean-tasting, in place of colatura (a salty Italian fish condiment) in a lot of our Italian recipes now. Colatura is an ancient seasoning that goes back to Roman times, where they would take anchovies and salt and press them, and the liquid that was produced is a big part of the cooking in southern Italy; basically a fish sauce in a different part of the world. I love to take a whole chicken, split it in half, and marinate it in fish sauce, soy sauce, and sesame oil with crushed ginger, crushed garlic, and Korean dried peppers, and then grill the chicken. Fish sauce really activates the umami sense, bringing out lots of flavors for your palate.
And Dessert? Maybe Not
New York pastry chef Miroslav Uskokovic worked under Jean-Georges chef Joe Murphy (and former chef Johnny Iuzzini) before creating his own menus at George Mendes' Aldea and, currently, at Union Square Hospitality Group's Gramercy Tavern.
I once made a fish sauce whipped cream. It was disgusting. I was just playing around, but it was disgusting. Who knows, maybe one day I'll try something and get it.
This post may contain links to Amazon or other partners; your purchases via these links can benefit Serious Eats. Read more about our affiliate linking policy.