As I am home, my lady Mama have been stuffing me with glorious home-cooked asian food – I am not complaining but it is not helping in my goal to lose some weight. And, I have been poking my head into the kitchen while all the magic is taking place. Being fascinated by the mysterious Potion rack that make my food so damn delicious, I chose to examine one particular ingredient, the Fish Sauce.
The question started growing in my head. Where does this comes from? Which smart ‘Ah being’ came out with this idea? How was it being made? How can I differentiate good vs bad ones? Is it healthy? Does it even pass safety regulations?
I have invited a good friend, Eric Low to help out. Eric spent the younger part of his life being a ‘Sir Marco Polo of Asia’ sailing through the Europe, Caribbean and Mediterranean, cooking for the riches on their deluxe private yacht. After getting tired of that, he became a mad food scientist in the Research and Development lab of Nestle.
To make fish sauce, fish is fermented in a tank or in the sun from a week to three weeks. Then, you press the fermented fish mass to extract the rawest form of fish sauce. After pressing, the sauce goes through pressurisation. There’s also filtering and adjustments— if the color is not ideal, they’ll add caramel.
The sauce originates from the Han Jiang region of China, a coastal area with an abundant supply of the “trash fish”—seafood that’s too small to be sold—that’s used to make fish sauce. Eric says, “While soy sauce belongs to the entire race of Chinese people, fish sauce belongs to the Teochews. That’s why you see it wherever in the world there are Teochews.
Which is the best fish sauce?
Today, the top fish sauce is rumored to be from Vietnam where the best kind of anchovies for fish sauce is found (in the Gulf of Tonkin). A friend who used to stayed in Phu Quoc island, Vietnam says if the wind blew the wrong way on a particular day, you would not want to breathe!
Vietnam has also a rating system for fish sauce, the “N” number. Standard supermarket bottles are usually N25. But there are also high quality versions, which might run up to N70. Here, in Singapore, you can get N50-60 fish sauce at Victoria Wholesale Market and N45 fish sauce at Golden Mile Complex.
“N” stands for nitrogen and it indicates how much protein’s in the fish sauce. The more protein = the more umami flavour.
The Fish Sauce Test
I have decided to buy some fish sauces and try to understand the mystical power of it. The Vietnamese Fish Sauce is 3 times more expensive than the Normal ones from China and have a nice translucent golden hue. On the tongue, the Vietnamese Fish Sauce seems less salty and more a mild sweet fishy flavour.
I set up a simple experiment using eggs as the base ingredient and added a teaspoon of Sea salt, Soy Sauce and the Fish Sauce to each egg and fried it.
How ‘un’Heathy is it?
Fish sauce is rich in glutamates, and works as a flavor enhancer. Unlike Soy Sauce which is used as a food dipping, only a few drips of fish sauce is used for soup and food dish. I cannot conclude that it is a healthy food but a few drops of it for a flavor boost. Hell Yes, I’ll put it in my soup any day.
I am keeping my experiment as a secret.. Go try it and tell me what works for you. Come back next week and I will release my findings.
Happy experimenting 😉
Written by Chin Hui Wen, founder of Merlion Granola and Bryan Lim.