Fish sauce, that essential SE Asian condiment, has been getting some bad press at eGullet lately. In an effort to put an end to this vicious rumor-mongering and reveal the truth behind fish sauce that the Man doesn't want you to know, I thought I would describe what goes into making the stuff. I wrote a piece about fish sauce for a magazine here in Bangkok a while back and was able to visit a fish sauce factory in Chonburi and see first hand how it is made. The pics and info are taken from that piece, which will be printed in the Bangkok Post supplement themagazine early next year. And no, even after doing this, I can't deny that fish sauce stinks, but it is a pure product with an interesting history.
Depending on the brand, a small amount of sugar might also be added at this point (Thai people prefer a slightly sweet, caramel-colored fish sauce), then the fish sauce is filtered three times and bottled:
Interestingly, at no point is the fish sauce pasteurized or subjected to preservatives; the stuff is so salty that bacteria or other nasties can't survive in it. This product is now known as nam plaa thae, Grade A fish sauce:
Lesser quality, nam plaa prasom, or "mixed" fish sauces are made by adding water to the solids left in the vats aftet the production of Grade A fish sauce. This fish sauce contains less protein, and is sometimes full of artificial colorings, MSG, and preservatives to make up for the lack of natural flavor. Oddly enough, it is this stuff that one finds most often in Asian food stores in the US, at least in my experience. This might be the reason that people in the US find fish sauce so revolting?
So now that you know what goes into it, what do you do with it? Well if you're not already aware, fish sauce is used in pretty much the same way that salt is used in the West. One of the most delicious and simple dishes to make with fish sauce is nam plaa phrik, the Thai equivalent of a salt shaker. Take three or four tablespoons of Grade A fish sauce and add two or three (or more if you like) very thinly-sliced Thai chilies, a clove of thinly-sliced garlic, and a squeeze of lime. Put all this in a small shallow dish and sprinkle over bland tasting food.