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What is fish sauce? Get to know the umami-licious ingredient

No pantry should be without it.

Squid Fish Sauce Guide

Fish sauce is a condiment that no one should be without. Salty, savoury, fishy, funky… it just adds depth and pizazz to Thai dishes and, as a result, it’s become an unquestionable kitchen staple. Here’s everything you need to know, from what it is, what you can use instead of it, and how to store it.

So… what is fish sauce?

You’ve seen it mentioned in countless recipes of mine. But let’s go back to basics for a minute: exactly what is fish sauce? The clue is in the name: fish. More specifically, fermented fish. Anchovies are first given a salty coating, then go for a nice long rest in a barrel – anything from a few months to a few years. During that time, natural bacterias break it down until you’re left with a savoury liquid that’s the culinary equivalent of liquid gold.

Where do I buy fish sauce?

It’s widely available in major supermarkets, online or from specialist Asian grocery stores.

Squid Fish Sauce Guide

There are many brands available, so you may need to try a few to find your favourite.

What’s the best fish sauce to use in my cooking?

Like many other ingredients, you may have a favourite brand that’s your go-to. But, to be honest, choosing one brand over another isn’t going to be a dealbreaker for a dish. You’ll probably recognise the ‘squid’ fish sauce (officially called Squid Brand fish sauce) in its iconic bottle, although Red Boat does very well in taste tests. Either way, you won’t be necking shots of the stuff anytime soon, so see how you go with your brand of choice!

What can I use instead of fish sauce?

Hmm, a fish sauce substitute. This is a toughie, because it’s an ingredient that’s unique in its own special, glorious way. However, if you were in an absolute bind, you could try finely mincing an anchovy fillet, then mixing it with one tablespoon of soy sauce. That would give you the equivalent of one tablespoon of the real deal – you can try adding more or less anchovy to suit the recipe.

What about a vegetarian option?

Cook’s Illustrated found that a umami-laden combo of dried shiitake mushrooms and soy sauce creates a vegetarian substitute for fish sauce. This homemade recipe is simple to make, plus keeps for three weeks in the fridge. Worth a shot, I say!

Squid Fish Sauce Guide

Nuoc cham, one of my favourite dipping sauces, uses the fishy liquid gold.

Is fish sauce gluten free?

Since it’s only made of two ingredients – fish and salt – fish sauce does not contain gluten naturally. However, always, always check the label closely before purchasing or consuming, especially if you have an intolerance. That’s because there are instances where gluten is present in some sauces, based on the facility where it is produced. Not only that, some manufacturers add wheat as an ingredient.

Does fish sauce go off?

When it comes to shelflife, we’re talking about a naturally fermented product that doesn’t include any perishable ingredients and is high in sodium, so it will last a fair while. While many manufacturers include a best-by date on the bottle, some don’t – instead, they’ll just include a bottling date instead. Once opened, it’s best consumed within one year – something that Red Boat fish sauce also agrees with. 


While it’s rare for fish sauce to ‘go off’ as such, the quality of it will degrade over time, so it’s important to know how to store fish sauce. And of course, if the odour changes or mould appears, chuck it out!

Do I have to refrigerate fish sauce?

Your pantry will suffice – you want somewhere cool and dark so the product won’t be impacted by bright light or heat. If kept in the fridge, you may find that salt particles might crystallise. Again, always check the packaging or with the manufacturer for their advice – they know best!

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