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.Ã‚Â THE WHOLE HOUSE STINKS!!!!”
But fear not, ifÃ‚Â 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 Ã¢â‚¬â€œ 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!