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Easy to make, and ready in just two minutes, my vegan fish sauce delivers the essential umami-bomb that’s central to Thai cooking.
What is fish sauce?
In SE Asian cooking, fish sauce is used to give that distinctly salty, slightly sweet umami hit to dishes, and is an essential component of the Thai holy flavour grail of hot, sour, salty, sweet.
Yummy as it makes the food though, it’s bad news for vegans and vegetarians, which means you need a decent substitute. Vegan fish sauce to the rescue! It’s really easy to make, and ready in a couple of minutes.
In Thai, fish sauce is called nam pla, which literally means ‘water of fish’. However, mai means ‘not’, so I call my vegan fish sauce, mai nam pla – ‘not fish sauce’. It may not be entirely grammatically correct but it works for me!
It’s not just Asian!
Although fish sauce is ubiquitous in Southeast Asian fare, it’s actually been used for over two and half millennia in Southern and Western Europe too. The ancient Greeks used it, as did the Spanish, French, Portuguese, and the Romans, who called it garum (and liquamen).
In fact, in Campania, about an hour’s drive from our old apartment in Pozzuoli, there is a town called Cetara, where people still make and use a similar product, called Colatura di alici… literally, leakage of anchovies. Given the method of production, which I won’t go into because it’s a bit gross, it’s a very apt name!
Roman fish sauce
The Romans, being the gastronomes they were, and not being content with any old garum, would also add;
- honey to make meligarum. Mel is Latin for honey, hence Melissa… meaning honey bee.
- wine to make oenogarum. From the Greek, oinos… if you pronounce each letter separately, it’s easy to see how we get the word, wine. (An oenophile is the name for a wine connoisseur – in case you ever need to know.)
- water to make hydrogarum. A drink that was served to Roman legionaries (as though they didn’t already have a crappy life).
- vinegar to make oxygarum. Oxy comes from the Greek, oxys, which means sharp or acidic, which is exactly what vinegar is – a sharp, acidic flavour.
Modern-day Worcestershire Sauce could be considered a descendant of garum.
Fish Sauce in Asian cooking
Fish sauce in Asia has been around even longer than garum, and historical records show it being used in China since at least 2,300 years ago, during the Zhou dynasty (c.1046 – 256 BC). During the Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), however, the fish element was abandoned, resulting in what we now know as soy sauce.
Apart from chillies, nam pla is probably the most ubiquitous ingredient of South East Asian cooking, especially in Thailand. Its salty-sweet umami flavour makes it an essential part of dishes such as phad Thai, yum som-o, and som tam ma muang.
Vegan fish sauce recipe
- soy sauce or tamari
- dried shiitake powder
- white miso paste
- fermented bean curd
- rice vinegar
- garlic powder
- tomato purée (aka tomato paste)
How to make vegan fish sauce
- Blitz everything in a high-speed blender for a few seconds, until you have a smooth liquid.
- Strain through a piece of muslin into a glass bottle or jar with a tight-fitting lid, and keep in the fridge for up to three months.
- You can use it 1:1 as a direct replacement in recipes that call for fish sauce.
- If you don’t have, or can’t get shiitake powder, make your own by grinding dried shiitake mushrooms, either whole or sliced.
- Feel free to sub dried wakame instead of nori: you’ll want 5-10g.
- I used to use a Krups F203 coffee grinder to grind my nori before adding it to my old blender, which wasn’t very powerful. It worked well but the fish sauce did need to be strained. Now I have my VAC2 and Evolve blenders, I just chuck everything in at the same time, and it does the job beautifully, leaving almost no bits to have to filter!
- You don’t want to use reduced salt soy sauce or tamari – one of the functions of fish sauce is to add salt to a dish. Think of fish sauce and chilli as Thai salt and pepper!
To make gluten-free
- You can swap soy-sauce for tamari (don’t use low-salt), and use a gluten-free miso (check which grains are used).
Check out these Thai recipes while you’re here!
- phad Thai
- som tam ma muang
- nam prik pao
- phad si io
- phad pak boong fai daeng
- massaman curry
- tom yam
- yum som-o
Of course, you can use mai nam pla in other Asian dishes too, and mixed with a bit of nam prik pao, it makes a great dipping sauce.