“Many western­ers are freaked out by the thought of in­clud­ing fish sauce in Euro­pean or Amer­i­can food”

The Guardian - Cook - - Books - by Kay Plun­kett-Hogge Kay Plun­ket­tHogge is a food writer and broad­caster. Her lat­est book, Ad­ven­tures of a Ter­ri­bly Greedy Girl, is out now on Mitchell Bea­z­ley; kay­cooks.com; @kplun­ket­thogge

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.

Serves 2-4

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.

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