“Many westerners are freaked out by the thought of including fish sauce in European or American food”
I’ve just hired a Thai Texan,” David Thompson tells me. “She was making gumbo recently, and I said: ‘You know what that needs? Fish sauce.’ And she looked at me with horror … ”
This is not an unusual response. Many Thais see fish sauce as belonging exclusively to the Thai canon. Likewise, many westerners are freaked out by the thought of its inclusion in European or American food. As a child, my Bangkok-born mind thought fish sauce was, if not uniquely Thai, then at least particular to south-east Asia. But, aged 11, I found some anchovy essence in a cupboard in my gran’s Lewisham kitchen and realised the two condiments were loosely the same.
David’s Bangkok restaurant, Nahm, is arguably the best Thai restaurant in the world, because his knowledge of early Thai food is second to none. I’ve come to speak to him because fish sauce has been on my mind – I keep walking past 21 Soho Square, the site of the Crosse and Blackwell Fish Sauce Factory from 1830 until 1921.
He’s far from alone in suggesting we add fish sauce to unlikely recipes: Canadian food writer Naomi Duguid adds it to guacamole; I use it in shepherd’s pie; and Antonio Carluccio puts it in spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino … (except that he doesn’t – he in fact uses colatura, from the Amalfi coast, an ingredient descended from the ancient Roman garum or liquamen, AKA ... fish sauce). And why? Because fish sauce and its anchovy-based brethren provide a hit of salty, funky, umami deliciousness that can transform a dish in ways matched by no other condiment.
The roots of fish sauce are clouded in mystery. Garum we first learn about in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, but it is an ingredient that broadly vanishes from western cuisine with the fall of the Roman Empire. What we find as we dig deeper are two competing theories. The first conforms to that of multiple discovery: the same thing uncovered independently in different parts of the world. The second is that fish sauce travelled east to China along the Silk Road. I love the romance of this notion, although the Tai Yai tribes, who settled in modern Thailand, began their journey from China much longer ago than that – around the 9th century – settling in the central plains a century or so later.
“I don’t think they directly developed fish sauce at that time,” David tells me. “But they were definitely making pla rah (a thick, salted fish sauce fermented with rice) and pla kem (salted preserved fish) as a way to preserve the bounty of nature.”
Fish sauce, or nam pla – essentially the liquid drippings from preserving sea fish with salt – could simply be a happy accident; an evolution from these earliest preservation methods dating back to the very foundations of Thai culture, as integral to Thai food as rice itself.
For me as well, Thai fish sauce is a cornerstone ingredient, as integral to my cooking as salt and pepper. I add it with lime juice to a salad dressing or a coleslaw to add depth. I use it in place of Worcestershire sauce (which is really just pepped up nam pla, and the modern descendant of the sauce from Soho Square, where we began). And, of course, I use it liberally in almost all things Thai – a cuisine that always requires its umami charms ... as the following simple stir-fry will attest.
Cabbage stir-fried with fish sauce
One of the first dishes I learned to cook. Simple and delicious.
1 head of cabbage — white, savoy, January King (whatever’s to hand) 2 tbsp vegetable oil
4–6 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tbsp fish sauce
½ tsp sugar (optional)
1 Core the cabbage, remove any tough outer leaves, separate the rest of the leaves, and cut into chunks. Rinse in cold water and set aside to dry.
2 Add the oil to a hot wok over a high heat. When hot, add the garlic and fry until fragrant and about to turn golden.
3 Add the cabbage and stir to coat. Add the fish sauce, pouring it around the cabbage on to the hot wok.
4 Toss the cabbage through the fish sauce until it softens slightly and starts “catching”. Add the sugar, if using. Give it a final toss. Add a little more fish sauce or a dash of water, if you like. Serve with Thai jasmine rice.