Thai fish sauce

One of the best advice I can give to people who wants to start venturing into the kitchen, cooking Asian food is to get themselves a bottle of Thai fish sauce. It is the secret ingredient in most dishes, from the internationally known Tom Yam Goong to even Char Koay Teow. Loh Bak (meat rolls) use it too.

Each time I use it, it leaves a stinky smell in my hands which need lots of disinfectant to clean it. Yeap, in case you haven’t use fish sauce, that’s how it smells. At times, when I am frying vegetables, with a smoking hot pan, I would sprinkle a few drops into the wok. Then, my kids will inevitably yell in unison….”Aw….mom! What are you DOING.  THE WHOLE HOUSE STINKS!!!!”

But fear not, if  used sparingly, as in a few drops and mixed with other flavours, the food will tastes heavenly.

I googled to find how how this sauce is made. Finally, I found my answer :

Called “nam bplah” in Thai, or literally “fish water,” genuine fish sauce is the water, or juice, in the flesh of fish that is extracted in the process of prolonged salting and fermentation. It is made from small fish that would otherwise have little value for consumption. This can either be freshwater or saltwater fish, though today, most fish sauce is made from the latter as pollution and dams have drastically reduced the once plentiful supply of freshwater fish in the heartlands of Southeast Asia.

Among marine fish, anchovies and related species of small schooling fish from two to five inches in length are commonly used, as they can be found in bountiful supply in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea. Larger varieties of fish, such as mackerel and sardines, also make good fish sauce, but because they are relatively more expensive due to their value as a food fish, they are seldom used in the commercial production of fish sauce.

For fish sauce to develop a pleasant, fragrant aroma and taste, the fish must be very fresh. As soon as fishing boats return with their catch, the fish are rinsed and drained, then mixed with sea salt – two to three parts fish to one part salt by weight. They are then filled into large earthenware jars, lined on the bottom with a layer of salt, and topped with a layer of salt. A woven bamboo mat is placed over the fish and weighted down with heavy rocks to keep the fish from floating when water inside them are extracted out by the salt and fermentation process.

The jars are covered and left in a sunny location for nine months to a year. From time to time, they are uncovered to air out and to let the fish be exposed to direct, hot sunshine, which helps “digest” the fish and turn them into fluid. The periodic “sunning” produces a fish sauce of superior quality, giving it a fragrant aroma and a clear, reddish brown color.


Recently years, several brands of fish sauce are easily available on the supermarket shelves. Remember to buy yourself the smallest bottle you can find because you do not use much and it is not good to leave an open bottle for too long. Anyway, a bottle costs a mere RM3, I think.

Note that my bottle is only the size of a mug. I do not know if one brand is better than another. I just buy a bottle that appears hygienic and bottled according to modern technology.

Remember to use sparingly. Just a few drops or else the fishy smell will spoil your food. It is also very salty. So, if you are using fish sauce, do not add salt or soya sauce.

I use fish sauce in these dishes:

Fried chicken – Season with tumeric and fish sauce : It taste great.

Fried lean pork – Season with Shao Hsing Rice wine and fish sauce.

Fried prawns – Just dribble some fish sauce and deep fry prawns

Stir fried vegetables – Just chopped garlic and fish sauce

Fried rice – A simple fried rice with dried prawns, egg and fish sauce make a quick meal

Any dish that uses lime or other sourish stuffs

Fish sauce is a crucial ingredient in Char Koay Teow. However, not many of us notice because the vendor usually mix their soya sauce, fish sauce and dark soya sauce into one dark sauce. One of these days, I may show the step-by-step in frying Char Koay Teow!

Post Author: Lilian

Food, travel, recipes. Chinese Malaysian, blogger, photographer and writer.

15 thoughts on “Thai fish sauce


    (April 20, 2006 - 4:48 pm)

    Yahooo kak lilian!
    Show lah recipe step by step so I can make it osso at home!
    And I was wondering la kak lilian kan, whether you have similar recipes to the food that you ate at this entry:


    (April 21, 2006 - 9:41 am)

    fish sauce…smelly but yummy!


    (April 21, 2006 - 11:58 am)

    I like those TOD NaM PLas.. fish cakes… any heads up on how to make them?


    (April 21, 2006 - 3:22 pm)

    I’m a fish sauce addict since now a good ten years; I litterally use it EVERYWHERE (even in European dishes) as it is simply magical! I must say that I don’t mind the smell of it (shrimp paste is worse!)…


    (April 21, 2006 - 3:46 pm)

    Yeap, it stinks quite a bit but it tastes good…


    (April 21, 2006 - 6:03 pm)

    i still prefer nuoc mam the viet version than nam pla..cannot find them here in Malaysia. Its tastier and not that smelly….hygiene wise….err…sama kot


    (April 21, 2006 - 6:57 pm)

    Yah lah Lilian, show us the step by step of making char koay teow. I hope to try to make it someday too….


    (April 21, 2006 - 7:24 pm)

    foodcrazee – I have never been to Vietnam and only ate Vietnamese food three times. So must make mental note to look out for them if I ever visit Vietnam.

    Lrong – Yeah! Hey, missed you!

    Rosa – I am surprised! Did it go well with European dishes? That’s something new.

    Sherene – I know what you mean, I am keen to try cooking them too. I know the ingredients are fish paste, kaffir lime leaves, curry powder, long beans….and the chillie sauce that goes with it is heavenly! I have a pic of them in the related post (thai teochew food)

    wuching – I know you like Thai food.

    maR – It is not hard to cook them. Of course, it won’t taste the same. Tell you what, I will go get the ingredients one of these days and do a step by step for you, dear. The mee masak oysters and the taukua udang. Tapi the oysters we used are those very tiny ones la. If you got besar-besar punya, jangan lah masak, sayang tau. Slrrupppp, I love oysters!


    (April 21, 2006 - 8:23 pm)

    Kak liliaaan…
    Thank you thank you thank youuu…
    We got oysters big big one… tapi takpa… nak makan punya pasal… heheh…
    Azrin loves to slurp oysters… a dozen at one time shot is kacang to him … bulih makan makan sekali one kak lilian ….


    (April 21, 2006 - 11:06 pm)

    Yes, it goes terribly well with European dishes! You’d be surprised to see that it can be used in many recipes!!!

    For example, I use it in spaghetti sauce, in the French ratatouille, to make meatballs/meat patties, omelets, etc…

    Since the Italians use salted (tinned) sardines to perfume certain dishes, nam pla goes perfectly well with their cuisine. In fact, I read somewhere that the Romans had a similar fish sauce…


    (April 22, 2006 - 8:13 am)

    Wow… I didn’t know that fish sauce can be used in so many dishes! Will try one of these days. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!


    (April 23, 2006 - 4:21 pm)

    crazymommy – We are all learning each day.

    Rosa – You certainly gives me a whole new look at Western dishes (which we over here think is too bland).

    maR – Mission accomplished.

    david fairbrother

    (July 26, 2006 - 10:40 pm)

    regarding nam plas fish sauce.

    once opened ,how long will this last in a screw topped bottle?

    i have a bottle here in umbria italy, and am desperate to cook thai!

    one cannot find the sauce here!

    July 2006


    (July 26, 2006 - 11:59 pm)

    Hi David – As far as I know, the salt content is very high and hence, it doesn’t spoil that easily. If you are worried about spoiling, try storing it in the fridge? You can give a quick check to see if it is spoilt by looking for any whitish spots (usually fungus) near the cover. Happy cooking!

    […] Boil all the above with some chicken bones, onions and tomatoes. Sometimes, if I have prawns shell, I will dry fry them and then, blend the heads and shells in a blender. I mixed them to the stock. Remember the fish sauce too! […]

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