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: 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.
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“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’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, who used fish sauce in the Asian-inspired food at Momofuku, uses it like soy sauce at his new Philadelphia 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 pâté.
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.”