Flavor Bomb: The One Ingredient Every Cook Needs

Funky, umami-rich fish sauce is the one ingredient we can’t live without. Seven chefs who share our current obsession dish on how to deploy it best and add incredible depth to savory recipes.

By Paula Disbrowe: My husband and I have this running joke. When I’m dashing off to the market or jotting down a grocery list, he’ll say, “Be sure to get fish sauce.” The thing is, we already have several bottles in the cupboard. In the past, I’ve used the ingredient sporadically-say, when trying out a new Asian recipe. And then by the time I need it again, I forget we’re stocked and buy more. That’s about to change.

According to some of the country’s most inventive chefs, fish sauce-the pungent, salty liquid extracted from fermented anchovies and salt-is something you should reach for nearly every day. We’re not just talking pad Thai here, folks. True, fish sauce is an essential ingredient in various Southeast Asian cuisines, where it’s used as a marinade, a flavor enhancer during the cooking process, and a condiment. But as the following recipes reveal, the sauce’s deeply savory intensity makes it a stealth flavor booster that can add depth as well as that elusive little something extra to countless dishes in your current recipe repertoire. And yes, a little bit goes a long way.

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Spaghetti Aglio e Olio“When I cook at home, I use fish sauce in a lot of Italian food,” Quealy Watson says. “I took Latin for four years and read most of Apicius [a collection of ancient Roman recipes]. After seeing the prevalence of garum, a fermented fish sauce, in ancient Roman cooking, using fish sauce in Italian food just made sense. It’s essentially anchovy juice.” Look for crispy fried garlic at your local Asian market.
Photo: Hector Sanchez

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Caramelized Brussels Sprouts with Green Onions and Cilantro: “Brussels sprouts are best when caramelized,” says Gavin Kaysen. “Tossing the roasted vegetables with rich, salty fish sauce enhances the sweet notes created by the cooking process.”
Photo: Hector Sanchez

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Salmon Soup with Tomato, Dill, and Garlic: Andrea Nguyen and husband Rory O’Brien use fish sauce nearly every day, in traditional Vietnamese and Thai dishes, and as a stealth ingredient in BBQ sauce. “When a Western dish such as chili or boeuf bourguignon needs extra gravitas,” Nguyen says, nuoc mam is part of the remedy. Carp is the fish typically used in this traditional Vietnamese soup (known as rieu), but since it is not commonly available at regular markets, Nguyen switched to salmon.
Photo: Hector Sanchez

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Glass Noodles with Green Papaya, Peanuts, and Chili Vinaigrette: Since the food at Beaker & Gray combines playful new flavor profiles with ingredients from around the world, Brian Nasajon has the opportunity to pair all kinds of combinations with fish sauce to create fresh, unexpected results. His glass noodles are a Grade-A example. “This dish is very floral and bright, with lots of herbs, vinegars, and chiles; fish sauce brings the undertones and body.” In a pinch, substitute Granny Smith apple for papaya, and zucchini for the chayote.
Photo: Hector Sanchez

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Grilled Chicken Skewers with Asian Pear Slaw: Marjorie Meek-Bradley relies on fish sauce to bring a new dimension to marinades and vinaigrettes. She finds that this salty pantry staple is especially appealing in crisp salads.
Photo: Hector Sanchez

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Mixed Mushrooms with Fish Sauce: “When creating a side dish, I like the sauce to have a good punch, especially if it’s accompanied by something that could stand on its own,” says Chris Clime. To make this dish even more flavorful, you can leave the cooked mushrooms in their juices overnight to continue marinating. When you’re ready to serve, heat them in a dry, hot skillet and cook until they start to get slightly golden brown and crispy.
Photo: Hector Sanchez

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Blistered Snap Peas with Fish Sauce Vinaigrette, Roasted Cashews, and Basil: “We like to use fish sauce in nontraditional ways, letting it enhance dishes more firmly rooted in French, Italian, and even South American cooking,” says Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton. For instance, she and Greg Denton may substitute fish sauce for anchovies in Caesar dressing or splash it into a slow-­simmered braise to develop depth. They like to serve this dish as a side to a variety of grilled meats and seafood, but may love it even more served over steamed rice with extra chopped cashews for a light and healthy one-bowl meal.
Photo: Hector Sanchez

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