Six months ago, New York chef Marc Forgione had hardly heard of fish sauce. Then he watched his chef-partner Soulayphet Schwader using it to flavor nearly every dish at their new Laotian restaurant Khe-Yo.
Now, it's in all of his restaurant kitchens.
"It's like a new thing in my arsenal," says Forgione. "Instead of saying, 'Let's add salt or soy sauce,' it's 'Let's add a little fish sauce.'"
Used at least as far back as ancient Rome, and known today primarily as a flavor enhancer in Asian cuisines, the seasoning made from fermented - read as "rotting" - fish is about to have its kale moment. Fish sauce is making its way out of the ethnic ghetto and taking its place next to salt in American restaurant kitchens as many chefs embrace its complex profile and ability to intensify other flavors.
"You don't necessarily see it on menus as an ingredient, but almost every chef I know - no matter what cuisine - has fish sauce in the kitchen," says chef Andy Ricker, of Portland, Ore.'s PokPok, who has been using fish sauce for decades in his Asian cuisine. "They use it to season. It gives this immediate boost of umami."
Like Ricker and Forgione, many chefs initially encounter fish sauce in Asian food. But today they are using it in everything from classic French to American cuisine. At his restaurant American Cut, Forgione tops grilled swordfish with "bang bang sauce," a concoction of garlic, chilies, lime, sugar and fish sauce. At Restaurant Marc Forgione, he drizzles it in a coconut milk ceviche.
Chef Peter Serpico uses it like soy sauce at his new Philadelphia, Pa., restaurant Serpico to deepen flavors in items such as sunchoke and kale salad. Chef Jamie Bissonnette discovered fish sauce at Vietnamese markets when he was growing up in Hartford, Conn., he says, but today he uses it to flavor everything from tarragon-and-shallot vinaigrette to grilled octopus and country pate.
Applying fish sauce in such dishes isn't a big stretch when you consider that anchovies often are used in a similar manner - to create layers of flavor.
"Fish sauce adds a different kind of depth that's more interesting," says Bissonnette, who keeps fish sauce in his two Boston kitchens, Toro and Coppa, and at Toro's New York outpost. "It's the same as cooking with fresh pork: If you cook with ham, or something that's been aged for a while, you get that breakdown of fermentation and flavor."
Bissonnette also uses the Italian version of fish sauce, known as garum. Like Asian fish sauce, garum starts with fermented fish, but garlic, herbs and wine impart a different flavor profile. Like many chefs, Bissonnette makes the garum himself, and uses it on pasta. The Asian fish sauce they buy.
Fermentation is the key to fish sauce, igniting a process that makes it function like the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (better known as MSG). Fermentation creates compounds called glutamates, which heighten flavors and create a sensation of umami, or savoriness.
"Fish sauce just enhances everything that's already there," Ricker says. "When we marinate our wings with fish sauce and sugar, we're just doubling down on stuff that's already there and adding layers on top of it."
Easy access to international recipes on the Internet, a growing fascination with global cuisine, and the expanding quality and variety of fish sauce (already available at most grocers) is contributing to its growing popularity, chefs say. Even artisanal brands, such as Mega Chef and Red Boat, have emerged, and some chefs are even giving it treatment previously reserved for craft beer. Witness the "Garlic Beer Garum" created by Cleveland chef Jonathan Sawyer.
Chefs like Ricker even distinguish between Vietnamese and Thai fish sauce, and between regions of those countries that produce it. Thai fish sauce, Ricker says, generally has a more pungent flavor than the Vietnamese version.
In the end, American cuisine's new love affair with fish sauce merely reflects something much of the world has known for a long time.
"There have been people using fish sauce for thousands of years," Forgione says. "People were eating kale for hundreds of years before it had its 'it' moment. Brussels sprouts the same thing."
take it easy
Ready to give fish sauce a try? Start out easy. Use a generous amount (a few tablespoons) to marinate your next steak for 30 minutes or up to several hours. The natural savory flavors of the steak will be intensified more than you thought possible. When you're ready to move on to bigger and better stuff. Try these recipes:
1 pound pappardelle pasta
1 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded and thinly sliced
1 medium zucchini, thinly sliced lengthwise
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions.
About 4 minutes before the pasta is done cooking, add the butternut squash. Then 2 minutes later, add the zucchini. Cook everything for another 2 minutes. Reserve 1/3 cup of the cooking water, then drain.
Transfer the pasta, squash and zucchini to a large bowl. Add the garlic, fish sauce, black pepper, olive oil and reserved cooking liquid. Add the Parmesan cheese and parsley, tossing the pasta to thoroughly coat everything and melt the cheese. Serve immediately.
11.5-ounce can V8 vegetable juice
3 tablespoons fish sauce
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
3 tablespoons prepared horseradish
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 pounds chicken breast tenders
3 stalks celery, finely chopped
1/2 cup green olives, finely chopped
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup Peppadew peppers (or other sweet-hot peppers), chopped
In a zip-close plastic bag, combine the V8, fish sauce, Worcestershire, horseradish and cayenne pepper. Add the chicken, close the bag, squeezing out any air, then refrigerate and allow to marinate for 2 to 6 hours.
Meanwhile, prepare the tapenade. In a medium bowl, combine the celery, olives, lemon juice, garlic and peppers. Stir well and allow to sit for at least 1 hour at room temperature for best flavor. Can be prepared ahead and refrigerated, then allowed to come to room temperature before serving.
When ready to cook the chicken, heat a grill to high. Remove the chicken from the marinade and grill on well-oiled grates for 3 minutes per side, or until cooked through. Serve topped with the tapenade.