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Asian alchemy

Salty, nose-wrinkling fish sauce becomes a pivotal and delicious part of Vietnamese and Thai favorites as it's mixed with other ingredients.

JANET K. KEELER
Published March 31, 2004

To put it mildly, fish sauce is an acquired taste.

It smells something awful, this amber-colored liquid made from tiny fish fermented in brine. Tackle box meets musty closet. And taste? Imagine sucking on a wet shoe that's fallen into a bucket of salt.

No doubt, fish sauce can make a lousy first impression. (Doesn't stinky Camembert cheese do the same?) But that's where East and West collide, because for people who grew up on the cuisines of Southeast Asia, there's no ingredient more magical.

"Fish sauce is a must-have for all cooking," says Nancy Piacenza, whose family left Vietnam for the United States in 1958 when she was 10. "We use it as a staple."

Piacenza, who recently moved to Florida from Maryland with her husband, Michael, knows the musty aroma is a turnoff to newcomers, but she encourages perseverance, because without fish sauce there is no pad Thai, pho or panang curry. Fish sauce adds a taste that can't always be pinpointed, but when it's left out, the difference is pronounced.

The alchemic properties of fish sauce are nowhere more obvious than in nuoc cham, the sweet Vietnamese dipping sauce served in restaurants with cold, delicate rice paper wrapped around cellophane noodles, cilantro, shrimp and shredded carrots. No one wrinkles his nose at fish sauce mixed with lime juice, sugar, garlic and hot chilies.

As interest in Asian cuisines continues to grow, more home cooks are attempting to make classic dishes at home. Ingredients such as lemongrass, rice paper and curry paste, difficult to find a decade ago, are readily available. Even fish sauce, though a generic version, is sold in grocery stores.

Fish sauce is the fundamental ingredient in Thai and Vietnamese food, just as soy sauce is in Japanese and Chinese dishes. Though soy sauce is a simple buy, fish sauce is more complicated. A quick language lesson in Vietnamese and Thai, plus a few tips on how to select a fish sauce, will set you on your way to mastering Southeast Asian cookery. (See accompanying story.)

In Vietnamese, fish sauce is called nuoc mam; in Thai, it's nam pla. Until recently, the United States had no trade agreement with Vietnam, so most of the fish sauce sold here came from Thailand. Now that trade is open again, you're likely to find more nuoc mam (pronounced NUCK mahm) than nam pla (NAHM plah) in Asian markets. But even fish sauce made in Thailand is often labeled in Vietnamese.

At Hoa-Lan Oriental Supermarket in St. Petersburg (450 34th St. N; (727) 322-0722), there are nearly a dozen varieties of fish sauce, including one made in Canada and a vegetarian version.

We met Piacenza in the fish sauce aisle at Hoa-Lan, a well-stocked market that has large freezer cases of frozen dim sum and shelves laden with interesting sweets. She later shared her system for picking the best brands among the myriad offerings.

"I rely on my mom (who lives in California)," she says. "She'll look for years to find the perfect fish sauce. It's all basically trial and error."

Piacenza is partial to Viet Huong Three Crabs brand. Just to confuse matters, there is also Huong Viet Two Crabs, which has a similar label, the main obvious difference being the number of crabs.

Nancie McDermott, author of the new Quick & Easy Thai (Chronicle Books, $18.95), says the Vietnamese are more particular about their fish sauce than the Thai. In fact, Phu Quoc, the largest island in Vietnam, is said to produce the most coveted fish sauce. (Be wary of labels that boast Phu Quoc fish sauce, which is just as likely from a factory in Thailand. Phu Quoc has become a generic term manufacturers use to mean "the best.")

"It's interesting to me that with all the specificity (in Vietnam), the Thais will just pour fish sauce on their rice and eat it," she says. "The Vietnamese have more of a mellow usage; the Thais have more of a rustic appreciation."

McDermott was a Peace Corps worker in Thailand in the 1970s and since then has made a career of explaining Thai cuisine to Westerners. Her other books include Real Thai: The Best of Thailand's Regional Cooking (Chronicle Books, 1992) and Real Vegetarian Thai (Chronicle Books, 1997). She lives in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Fish sauce is a protein source for Southeast Asians, McDermott says. Even the poorest countryside farmer would have access to vegetables, rice and fish. Fish sauce became a way to use the tiny fish that couldn't be eaten any other way, plus it preserved them for later use.

The origin of fish sauce isn't clear, but ancient Romans used something similar called garum, a pungent sauce also made by fermenting fish, such as mackerel, salmon or sardines, in brine. The liquid was combined with oil, wine and spices.

We tested three dishes, using Three Crabs premium grade fish sauce. A recipe that appeared recently in the New York Times, Tofu and Onions in Caramel Sauce, caught our eye, as did two of McDermott's, Grilled Salmon With Chili-Lime Sauce and Roasted Eggplant Salad With Cilantro and Lime, a classic Vietnamese dish you're unlikely to find in a restaurant.

All three recipes are simple but packed with the flavors we've grown accustomed to from frequenting Asian restaurants.

Some recipes, including the tofu dish, suggest substituting soy sauce for fish sauce with the caveat that they'll taste good, if not authentic. McDermott disagrees, saying cooks would be better leaving out the fish sauce rather than using soy sauce.

"They are exactly alike in that they are ancient salty seasonings, the essential condiment/salt of both (Thai and Chinese) cuisines," she says. "But the soy sauce is much more pungent. It overtakes and overwhelms. Fish sauce harmonizes and disappears into the rest of the ingredients."

Salt is actually a better substitute. One tablespoon of fish sauce equals 1 teaspoon of salt, McDermott says. Nutritionally, a tablespoon of fish sauce has 6 calories, 1 gram of protein and a whopping 1,390 milligrams of sodium, about 200 more than soy sauce. It has no fat or carbohydrates.

We had good results with all three recipes, marveling at the way the fish sauce did, indeed, disappear into the ingredients. The most unusual of the trio was the tofu dish, which was wonderfully flavorful, but we were unsure how it would fit into a meal. A small bowl felt like a nutritious snack, but the sweetness makes it ill-fit for a meal entree. We recommend it anyway as a simple and inexpensive way to experiment with fish sauce.

The grilled salmon recipe is a welcome addition to our grilling repertoire. Other meaty fish, such as cod or halibut, can be used. The fish is marinated in an aromatic melange of fresh cilantro, garlic, sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce and oil. The dipping sauce has almost the same ingredients, with the addition of lime. It's been a long time since we've tasted anything this fresh made at home.

The eggplant salad, served at room temperature, had room for improvement. The recipe calls for slender Asian eggplant, but the easier-to-find Italian variety can be used. We opted for that one, and it roasted unevenly, even after being quartered. The softer, more cooked pieces blended with the sweet-hot dressing better than the harder chunks. Next time, we'll stop at Hoa-Lan, which had a pile of the lavender-tinted Asian eggplant.

"There is no reason not to use fish sauce because of its fishy essence," McDermott says. "When you mix it with sugar and lime juice, wonderful things happen. And I say keep going. Don't judge it on its own."

That's a point well-taken, for your kitchen and ours.

Soi Vuong, Karen Pryslopski and Bob Croslin of the Times staff contributed to this report. Janet K. Keeler can be reached at 727 893-8586 or krieta@sptimes.com

Fish sauce, by name

Nuoc mam, Vietnam

Nam pla, Thailand

Tuk trey, Cambodia

Ngan-pya-ye, Myanmar

Patis, Philippines

Shottsuru, Japan

Fish gravy, China

FISH SAUCE FACTS

Fish sauce is made from a tiny, silvery variety of anchovy called ca com in Vietnamese. Ca is fish and com is rice, so the name implies a fish as small as a grain of rice, though it's probably not quite that minuscule. The fish is layered with salt and left to ferment for months in wooden barrels.

The liquid that's extracted after the first three months of fermentation is the most prized, something like extra-virgin olive oil. Subsequent extractions are less fishy and more salty. In Vietnam, there are at least four grades of fish sauce, but shoppers will find only two here.

Fish sauce marked "nuoc mam nhi" is premium and best used for eating straight or in dipping sauces, where its flavor is still pronounced. With no "nhi" on the label, you can be assured you're getting a later extraction and much more salt. This less-expensive version is good for cooking, but some experienced cooks reduce the amount called for in recipes because it is so salty.

Thai fish sauces are not graded; you'll know them by the name "nam pla." Fish sauces made in Hong Kong, China and the Philippines may also include mackerel and other fish.

At the grocery store, you're likely to find fish sauces by Thai Kitchen or Taste of Thai. These are good ones to start with, but if you want a more authentic flavor, head to an Asian market.

Nancie McDermott, author of Quick & Easy Thai (Chronicle Books, 2003; $18.95), prefers the Golden Boy brand and is quite scientific about her reason why. "The label is so cute," she says. On it, a baby sits on top of the world holding a bottle of fish sauce. McDermott also likes the popular Three Crabs brand.

Nonpremium varieties called Squid and Shrimp are popular for cooking, but don't make the mistake of thinking they are made from squid and shrimp. That seafood is saved for eating.

"If you hold those up to the light, they are darker and they will be stronger," McDermott explains. "The ones that look lighter, like the color of iced tea, are (not as strong-tasting)."

The most expensive fish sauces will cost $3 to $4 for a whiskey bottle full (about 24 ounces), and the least expensive are just more than $1. Sometimes you'll find smaller bottles, which are good for initial experimentation. Most experts recommend against fish sauce in plastic bottles, which can hasten spoilage.

Fish sauce does not have to be refrigerated after it's opened, but once it turns very dark, discard it.

- Soi Vuong of the Times staff contributed to this report.

Tofu and Onions in Caramel Sauce

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup fish sauce

1 large onion, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

1 pound firm tofu, cut into chunks of 3/4 inch to 1 inch

1 tablespoon butter, optional

1 tablespoon lime juice or vinegar, or to taste

White rice for serving

Put sugar and a tablespoon of water in a 10- or 12-inch skillet, preferably not nonstick, over medium heat. Cook, shaking pan occasionally, until sugar melts and browns a bit. Turn off heat, and carefully add fish sauce. Turn heat to low, and add onion. Cook, stirring, 5 to 10 minutes, until onion is very tender. Add pepper and tofu.

Gently simmer, turning tofu once or twice in sauce so it is glazed and heated through, about 10 minutes. Stir in butter, along with lime juice or vinegar. Taste, and add salt, more pepper or lime juice or vinegar if you like. Serve immediately over rice.

Makes four servings.

Source: New York Times.

Grilled Salmon with Chili-Lime Sauce

(Plah sah-mohn pao)

For fish:

3 tablespoons coarsely chopped garlic

3 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh cilantro roots, or stems and leaves

2 tablespoons fish sauce

1 tablespoon dark soy sauce or soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 1/2 pounds meaty fish fillets, such as salmon, tuna, snapper, cod, halibut, catfish or tilapia

For dipping sauce:

1/4 cup fish sauce

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh hot green chilies

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh cilantro

To prepare the fish: In the work bowl of a small food processor or a blender, combine the garlic, cilantro roots, fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar, salt, pepper and oil. Grind to fairly smooth paste, stopping now and then to scrape down the sides and adding a little water as needed to bring the ingredients together. Scrape the cilantro-garlic paste into a medium bowl, add the fish fillets and toss to coat everything well. Set aside for 20 to 30 minutes; longer is fine, covered and refrigerated, up to 1 day.

To make the sauce: Combine the fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and garlic in a small bowl. Stir well until the sugar dissolves, and then sprinkle with the chilies and cilantro. Set aside until serving time.

Prepare a very hot fire in a charcoal grill, or heat a gas grill or oven to 425 degrees. To cook the fish, place it on a lightly oiled grill rack, or in a shallow baking pan in the oven. Cook until handsomely browned and done to your liking, carefully turning once, about 5 minutes on each side, or longer for thick fillets. Serve hot or warm, with the bowl of sauce on the side.

Serves four to six.

Source: Source: "Quick & Easy Thai" by Nancie McDermott (Chronicle Books, 2004; $18.95).

Roasted Eggplant Salad With Cilantro and Lime

(Yum makeua yao)

1 pound Asian or globe eggplant

2 tablespoons finely sliced shallots

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh cilantro, plus leaves for garnish

2 green onions, thinly sliced

2 teaspoons coarsely chopped garlic

3 tablespoons fish sauce

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon chopped fresh hot green chilies, or 2 teaspoons coarsely ground dried red chilies

1 tablespoon dried shrimp, whole or coarsely chopped, or 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped roasted, salted peanuts (optional)

If you use long, slender Asian eggplant, cut in half lengthwise. If you use a globe eggplant, cut it lengthwise into quarters. Cook Asian eggplant strips, skin-side down, on a lightly oiled hot grill until tender and lightly browned, or on a baking sheet in a 400-degree oven for about 15 minutes. (Give globe eggplant at least five more minutes.) Set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, place all the remaining ingredients in a medium bowl. Cut the thick strips of eggplant crosswise into 2-inch chunks and add to the bowl. (If you use globe eggplant, peel the strips first.) Gently toss well to mix the eggplant with the seasonings. Mound the salad on a small platter, juice and all, and garnish it with a pinch of fresh cilantro leaves. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Serves four.

Source: "Quick & Easy Thai" by Nancie McDermott (Chronicle Books, 2004; $18.95).

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