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.
There could be several reasons why you might prefer a substitute to use instead of fish sauce, including an allergy to shellfish.
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.
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
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.
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.
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. Of course, this substitute doesn’t work if you have allergies to seafood.
Don’t add as much Worcestershire sauce to your dish as fish sauce because it 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.
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 the closest stand-ins you can find.