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 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,” said 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, 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 a variety of dishes include tarragon-and-shallot vinaigrette, 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,” said 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.
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 that heighten flavors and create a sensation of umami, or savoriness.
“Fish sauce just enhances everything that’s already there,” Ricker said. “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.”
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 this recipes:
Ceasar squash pappardelle
1pound pappardelle pasta
1small butternut squash, peeled, seeded and thinly sliced
1medium zucchini, thinly sliced lengthwise
3cloves garlic, minced
2tablespoons fish sauce
1teaspoon ground black pepper
2tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1/4cup 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.
Makes 6 servings. Per serving: 440 calories; 90 calories from fat (20 percent of total calories); 10 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 10 mg cholesterol; 72 g carbohydrate; 5 g fiber; 5 g sugar; 17 g protein; 700 mg sodium.
Recipe by Alison Ladman