Fish sauce is primarily used in Thai cuisine to bring a unique twist to the already existing flavors in a dish. It’s made by fermenting fish and shellfish with salt.
If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you won’t be able to have fish sauce with its normal ingredients. However, without it, many of your recipes that require fish sauce won’t have the kind of flavor that the fish sauce brings.
Because of these reasons, or because you’ve simply run out of fish sauce, you may want a fish sauce substitute that tastes just as great and doesn’t take away from a dish’s saltiness and sharpness.
Here’s a summary table for these substitutions:
|Equal parts soy sauce and vinegar + pinch of salt; use as much as fish sauce
|Lacks the fishy sharpness of fish sauce
|Dishes needing bitter and sour tinge
|Creates a dark green shade in dishes
|Start with half the amount, adjust to taste
|Dishes needing similar sour flavor
|Stronger flavor; use sparingly
Fish Sauce Flavor
Fish sauce has an umami and earthy flavor, coupled with a tinge of bitterness and saltiness that comes from the fish. It’s a bit pungent but there’s also a sweetish aftertaste.
It has a very distinct, strong flavor that you can pick up right away, so be sure not to add too much of it all at once.
The interesting thing about fish sauce flavor is that it’s a little briny, sweet and umami all at the same time, with the underlying, unique taste of salty fish at the same time.
That’s what makes it go so well with both savory and sweet food.
Substitutes for Fish Sauce
1. Soy Sauce
Soy sauce has a similar umami flavor as fish sauce but doesn’t have that sharpness that comes from the salt and fish used in fish sauce. To bring that taste to soy sauce, try adding some vinegar and salt to it.
Add the same amount of soy sauce as vinegar. You can use any kind of vinegar except balsamic. Then, add a pinch of salt.
You should add as much of this mixture to your dish as the amount of fish sauce that was required.
- Ratio: Combine equal parts of soy sauce and vinegar, then add a pinch of salt. Use the same amount of this mixture as the fish sauce required in the recipe.
- Application: Suitable for general cooking, adds umami flavor but lacks the fishy sharpness of fish sauce.
2. Wakame Powder
Wakame powder is a type of dried and crushed seaweed. It’s edible—don’t worry. The seaweed has a similar bitter and sour tinge to it that you get from fish sauce, so the final taste of your dish won’t be too far off from what it should be. Use any vinegar except balsamic and some salt.
While the taste is close to fish sauce, the color is very different.
Wakame powder creates a dark green shade, so make sure you don’t use it in anything where color could affect the way your dish looks.
- Ratio: Use wakame powder as a direct 1:1 substitute for fish sauce. Mix with vinegar and salt for added flavor.
- Application: Ideal for dishes where the unique bitter and sour tinge of fish sauce is desired. Be mindful of the dark green color it imparts.
3. Worcestershire Sauce
Worcestershire sauce has anchovies and tamarind which creates a similar sour flavor as fish sauce. It also has molasses, spice, garlic, and vinegar, among other ingredients, which bring an umami taste to your dish—quite like fish sauce.
Don’t add as much Worcestershire sauce to your dish as fish sauce because it often does have a stronger flavor than fish sauce. It’s better to add in a little at a time until you get the flavor you’re looking for.
- Ratio: Use Worcestershire sauce in smaller amounts than fish sauce. Start with half the amount and adjust according to taste.
- Application: Good for dishes requiring a similar sour flavor as fish sauce. Its strong flavor necessitates cautious addition.
How People Use Fish Sauce
People use fish sauce with vegetables such as mushrooms and greens and also with savory food such as roasted chicken, pasta, and broths.
Whatever you add fish sauce too, it immediately enhances its flavor with its powerful taste. In fact, some people use it anywhere that in place of salt to add a fun twist to their taste palette.
Tips and Tricks
If you’re new to using fish sauce, you’ll want to first stick to adding it to Thai and Asian cuisine. Asian cuisine requires a lot of seasonings, which you can learn more about here.
It works great with Chinese, and Vietnamese dishes as well, which all require that salty, bittersweet flavor in the majority of their recipes.
Some people even add it to salad dressings and marinades.
When you’re still experimenting with how much to use to get the right flavor, start with small amounts and work you way up until you get the desired taste. Adding too much at once could overshadow the other flavors in your recipe.
Fish sauce is definitely a must-have if you’re trying to expand the range of your culinary experience. The kind of flavor it adds is unmistakable and easy to distinguish.
While you can’t get an exact replica of the taste through a substitute, hopefully, the ones we’ve talked about here will work as a close second.
- Soy sauce
- Vinegar (white or apple cider vinegar recommended)
- Measure Soy Sauce and Vinegar: In a small bowl, combine equal parts of soy sauce and vinegar. For example, use 1 tablespoon of soy sauce and 1 tablespoon of vinegar for a small batch.
- Add Salt: Sprinkle a pinch of salt into the mixture. This enhances the overall flavor profile and brings it closer to that of traditional fish sauce.
- Mix Well: Stir the ingredients together until fully combined.
- Taste and Adjust: Taste the mixture and adjust the quantities of soy sauce, vinegar, or salt as needed to suit your preference.
- Use or Store: Use the substitute immediately in your recipe, or store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.
- This substitute lacks the distinctive fishy sharpness of traditional fish sauce, making it suitable for those who prefer a milder flavor.
- You can adjust the ratio of soy sauce to vinegar to suit your taste preferences.
- Ideal for stir-fries, marinades, and other dishes where fish sauce is typically used to add depth and umami.
- Store any unused portion in the refrigerator for up to a week.