Fish Sauce 101

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Warning:  Not all fish sauces are created equal.

If your kitchen cupboard contains nuoc mam (fish sauce) you’re probably ready to start cooking Vietnamese cuisine.  However, if you only have ONE type of nuoc mam in your kitchen cupboard, you may not be maximizing your Vietnamese cooking potential.

Nuoc mam is a very potently scented condiment used in many Vietnamese dishes.  It is the salt of Vietnamese cooking, lending the dishes a deep and savory flavor that plain salt just can’t accomplish.  My mom uses two different brands of nuoc mam, Three Crabs brand and Squid brand.

Two Different Brands of Nuoc Mam
Two Different Brands of Nuoc Mam

Upon closer examination of the bottoms of the jars in the photo above, you may be able to see that Squid brand is a bit lighter in color.  Three Crabs brand is thicker in consistency, and there is also a difference in the taste.  Three Crabs brand tastes a bit saltier and so should be used in smaller quantities.  In my experience, Squid brand seems more readily available, sometimes even appearing in mainstream American supermarkets in the Asian/ethnic food aisle.  

Throughout this website, you will see nuoc mam mentioned in many recipes. How do you know which nuoc mam to use?  Before you throw your chopsticks into the air, know that it’s as simple as this:  As a general rule, use Squid brand for most recipes during the cooking process.  For instance, in the Ca Kho recipe from our Mom’s 52 series, use the lighter and less salty Squid brand for the marinade.  Save Three Crabs brand for after cooking is done, i.e. for lightly dipping the fish from Canh Chua Ca, or for lightly dipping steamed okra for an easy side dish.  If you have a noodle soup dish, such as Pho or Bun Bo, and it tastes like it’s missing something, add a splash of Three Crabs brand at the dinner table to adjust the flavor.

Of course, it’s not the end of the world if you only have one type of nuoc mam on hand, but if you can only have one, and you want to make recipes that taste like mom intends, try to at least have Squid brand in your kitchen.  (It’s too bad they don’t pay me to say this stuff!)

Just when you think you’ve got a handle on nuoc mam vs. nuoc mam, we haven’t yet mentioned nuoc mam, the dipping sauce made from nuoc mam…say what?  Don’t worry.  That third type of nuoc mam will be covered in a full recipe in my Mom’s 52 blog.  Stay tuned!

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