Fish sauce may not have the sexiest name or the most appealing aroma, but there's a reason why the Southeast Asian liquid seasoning is a staple in pantries around the world. Not only is it a key ingredient in countless Thai, Vietnamese, and Indonesian preparations, but, like soy sauce and its fellow anchovy-based sauce, Worcestershire, fish sauce can be used to add a unique, savory complexity to dishes of any provenance. Here's a look at some of our favorite applications.
Whether you're grilling seafood, sautéing vegetables, or stir-frying steak, a fish sauce–spiked marinade can deliver a funky, umami-rich intensity to your favorite foods. Combined with chili, it adds savoriness and heat to grilled chicken wings. Tossed with shallots, lemongrass, garlic, sugar, and pepper, a splash of fish sauce flavors these addictive Vietnamese pork chops. Fish sauce seasons both our exceptionally juicy shell-on grilled shrimp and our homemade Vietnamese shrimp summer rolls; adds nuance to Thai-Style Beef With Basil and Chilies; and completes a quick, spicy stir-fry of beef, leeks, and onions. But fish sauce doesn't have to be limited to Southeast Asian preparations—it's a great foil for nutty-sweet Brussels sprouts, both roasted and deep-fried, and even makes its way into our recipe for carne asada.
Once you've finished marinating your ingredient of choice, I strongly recommend reserving the liquid—once simmered (to prevent any food-borne illnesses from the raw meat or seafood that's been soaking in it), it makes a phenomenal sauce. Use it to top whatever you've been marinating, or just hold on to it for the next time you're serving steak, chicken, or really anything that might benefit from a bright, assertive sauce.
And, speaking of sauces, fish sauce works wonders in more than just repurposed marinades. It's the secret ingredient in some of our favorite Italian sauces, like this slow-cooked Italian-American red sauce and our Slow-Cooked Bolognese. A combination of fish sauce and soy sauce adds savory depth to the gravy in our homemade poutine, while a mixture of mayonnaise, fish sauce, and chili sauce coats this Southeast Asian twist on grilled corn.
Fish sauce also makes quick work of any dipping sauce for dumplings and potstickers. Sample it in a traditional Thai nam phrig noom, or add it to a simple combo of cilantro, lime juice, garlic, and chili.
Complex Soups and Stews
A dash of fish sauce may seem out of place in chili, but it's an ideal way to add meaty depth to soups and stews (and no, your dish won't taste like fish!). Need proof? Look no further than our quick pressure-cooker chicken chile verde or a bowl of Spicy Chorizo and Pinto Bean Chili. Fish sauce also amplifies the savory richness of our French Onion Soup, adds character to this Filipino-style chicken and rice soup, and seasons the broth for Traditional Beef Pho.
More of a seafood person? Fish sauce balances out the spices in this dish of mussels in a Thai-style red curry, and pairs seamlessly with coconut milk as the poaching liquid for cod seasoned with lemongrass and lime juice.
Punchy Salad Dressings
Fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, garlic, and chili combine for a bold, classic Southeast Asian salad dressing. Try it on top of a meaty Thai-Style Marinated Flank Steak and Herb Salad; spice-heavy pork larb; a Vietnamese salad of crispy fried tofu skin, rice noodles, and plenty of herbs and fresh vegetables; or this Northern Thai side dish of bean sprouts, herbs, and crunchy fried pork rinds.
The same fundamental dressing brings the sweet and sour flavors of green papaya salad home in this cabbage, apple, and carrot salad, and captures the sensibilities of a Thai steak salad in this rice- and vegetable-based twist. Try it topping some bittersweet pomelo, snappy green beans, and zucchini, or even add a dose of fish sauce to your next tuna salad sandwich for a deeper, more savory flavor.
Amped-Up Fried Rice
A finishing squeeze of fish sauce can bring flavor to fried rice without weighing things down. It helps our Fried Rice With Blistered Green Beans and Basil shine and highlights the briny sweetness of our fried rice with crab, made with fragrant jasmine rice and tossed with crisp cucumber, scallions, and a scrambled egg.
Surprisingly Savory Cocktails
If, like me, you shy away from sweet cocktails and favor strong, spicy, savory drinks, consider adding a few drops of fish sauce to your next refreshment. I like it in my beer or, better yet, rounding out this Thai-inspired Bloody Mary in place of the more traditional Worcestershire sauce.
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.