Fish Sauce
Easy, Briny, Funky Flavor

Fish sauce is used to add depth and big, savory flavor to dishes across Southeast Asia. Though pungent in the bottle, in stews, dipping sauces and stir-­fries it delivers umami richness rather than fishy flavor. It gets its depth through fermentation, usually from anchovies mixed with salt and allowed to break down. The resulting liquid comes in various grades depending on when it was extracted, with first-pressed considered best. Good brands should use nothing more than fish, salt and, in some cases, a little sweetener to round out flavors.

Fish sauce is one of our pantry staples, but there are many options, and quality can range wildly. To find our favorite, we tested nine brands of Southeast Asian-style fish sauces.

Our tasters loved Red Boat 40°N fish sauce for its balanced umami depth; this upscale supermarket brand was praised for being intensely savory and not overly fishy. Premium BLiS (made with barrel-aged Red Boat 40°N) performed even better, boasting roasty, complex notes and pleasant funkiness—worth the higher price.

MegaChef fish sauce offered a fishier aroma and a sweeter profile, but also performed well. The most interesting was Squid brand fish sauce, which was polarizing—tasters either loved or hated its strong, funky flavors.

Our least favorite brands were from Taste of Thai and Thai Kitchen. Both were overwhelmingly salty, with off-putting aromas rather than the complex, briny funk we wanted.

Because it’s such a powerhouse ingredient, fish sauce shines in simple applications. Combined with a squeeze of lime juice and a pinch of sugar, it makes a delicious sauce for dumplings, salads and meats. But it has plenty of range—its umami depth also can enhance marinara sauces, salsas, and even Caesar salad dressings.

And, as we learned in Cambodia, it makes an excellent grilling sauce. Simply stir together ½ cup fresh cilantro (finely chopped), ¼ cup fish sauce, 2 tablespoons neutral oil, 1 tablespoon grated lime zest and 2 teaspoons packed light brown sugar. This creates a quick, flavorful marinade for grilled shrimp.