Samui Wining & Dining
Something Smells Fishy

Thai cuisine just wouldn’t be the same without fish sauce.


20Of all the different Thai dishes you’ll try on Samui, one thing’s for sure. Many of them will contain fish sauce. You probably won’t realise but, without it, lots of the culinary creations just wouldn’t taste the same. Known as nam pla, literally fish water in Thai, it’s used instead of salt or soy sauce and is an essential flavour enhancer. Made from the liquid drained from fermented anchovies, fish sauce is potent. It’s usually combined with other ingredients when used as a dipping sauce. For cooking, most Thais will use it straight, but never onto a dry pan as the smell can be overpowering.

    Many South-east Asian countries have a version of it and, as with olive oil, there are different grades. In Vietnam it’s generally called nuoc mam and in Myanmar it’s ngan byar yay. Cambodians call it teuk trei, whilst in China it’s known as yu lu. A similar fish sauce was ubiquitous in classical Roman cookery, where in Latin it was known as garum or liquamen. In English, it was formally translated as fish pickle, and the original Worcestershire Sauce was reasonably similar, being brought from India to England.

      Typically, anchovies and related species are harvested from the Gulf of Thailand for commercial use in the sauce as they have little value for consumption. Larger fish such as mackerel and sardines can also be used but they are relatively more expensive, and seldom used. For fish sauce to develop a pleasant, fragrant aroma and taste, the fish used must be very fresh. As soon as the fishing boats return with their catch, the fish is rinsed and drained, then mixed with sea salt, two to three parts fish to one part salt, by weight. They are then filled into large earthenware jars, lined on the bottom with a layer of salt, and topped with more salt. A woven bamboo mat is placed over the fish and weighted down to keep the fish from floating when the water inside them is extracted by the salting and fermentation process.

       Left in the sun for 9-12 months they are aired periodically and exposed to direct sunlight, which helps the fermentation process, and gives the liquid a reddish-brown colour. After enough time has passed the liquid is strained from the jars, aired again in the sun for a couple of weeks, to dissipate the strong fish odours, and then bottled. This finished product is 100% top-grade, genuine fish sauce. Second and third grade sauces are made by adding salt water to the fish remains and only require several months sitting before being bottled. The colour of these tends to be dark or muddy-brown. Popular brands include Tra Chang, Chao, Golden Boy, Tipparos, Three Crabs and Phu Quoc.

       Today, there are around 100 fish sauce factories in the Thai coastal provinces of Rayong, Chantaburi, Trat and Samut Songkhram. Another 140 or so use concentrated fish sauce for further processing into lower grade sauce. Many years ago people would make their own sauce but that’s rare nowadays, as the product is relatively inexpensive to buy. One of the largest and most modern fish sauce plants in Thailand is the Tang Heab Seng Factory in Rayong. Established in 1914, it produces Golden Boy (grade A), Chao (grade A), and Cook Yim (grade B). And after more than 90 years in business they have a worldwide reputation, with around 80% of their revenue generated from abroad. Exported produce goes to the USA, Canada, France, Germany, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Brunei and the Middle East.

       Some of the dishes that contain fish sauce that you’ll likely come across include: tom kha gai (a galangal flavoured chicken and coconut soup); yum pla dook foo (catfish and green mango salad); goew tiew kak (rice noodles in a beef curry sauce); larb (a spicy ground chicken or pork dish with limes and chilies); tom yam goong (spicy shrimp soup with lemongrass); and kanom jeen nam ya (noodles with fish curry sauce). There are countless others and one of the best ways to get to know a bit more about fish sauce, and its applications, is to take one of the short (a few hours) Thai cooking classes that many of the resorts run each week.

       Most Asian food stores in your home country will stock fish sauce. If you don’t have one close by, you might want to take a few bottles home. Making Thai dishes without it just won’t be the same. But don’t tell your friends, just let them marvel at your authentic Thai recipes!



Johnny Paterson


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