Fish sauce has been used for centuries as a condiment in Southeast Asia. With the purest blends consisting only of fish and salt, fish sauce is an excellent way to add a distinctive umami flavor to dishes along with salt. While Westerners once knew it only as an ingredient in Vietnamese cooking, fish sauce is now becoming widely known as a versatile ingredient but it still is not available everywhere. If you have run out of it and need a fish sauce substitute, try one of the options below.
Your best bet: Soy sauce
Soy sauce consists of soybean, grain, and other ingredients that have been fermented. A special yeast is added to soy sauce to facilitate the fermentation and it is aged for six months before being strained and bottled.
For most cooks, soy sauce is the best substitute for fish sauce even though its flavor profile is not the same. Soy sauce has a darker flavor due to the caramelization and it has a molasses-like bitterness instead of fish sauce’s fishy saltiness. Its flavor is complex but the most distinctive note is that of salt. Both soy sauce and fish sauce give food an intensely savory flavor. Light soy sauce would be a better option as its color will be the closest to that of fish sauce. It is a good idea to start with a relatively small amount of soy sauce and add more if the dish needs it.
A decent second choice: Shrimp paste
Like fish sauce, shrimp paste is a seafood-based seasoning with a strong flavor and smell. Its production method is very similar to that of fish sauce. The purer versions consist only of shrimp and salt. The shrimp is ground to a paste and mixed with the salt. It is also fermented, just like fish sauce.
In a pinch: Oyster sauce
Like fish sauce, oyster sauce is made from seafood. The oysters used to make it are boiled and the water used to boil them is reduced until it forms a thick concentrated sauce. Most of the modern versions that you see on store shelves contain thickeners and other ingredients to enhance the flavor. Oyster sauce serves the same function as fish sauce in that it is used to bring out the savory characteristics in dishes.
Oyster sauce has a dramatically different appearance from fish sauce in that it is a dark brown in comparison to the clear, tea-like reddish-brown of fish sauce. Oyster sauce also has a different consistency — it is thick like ketchup, unlike the watery fish sauce. The thickness may affect how easy it is to use in some dishes.
Worcestershire sauce began as an attempt by Englishmen to create Asian flavors. It is a fermented sauce with a fish base and that is meant to add or enhance the umami profile in savory dishes. Worcestershire sauce contains a lot more than just fish, so the flavor profile is different from that of plain fish sauce; however, it is a great fish sauce alternative in dishes where all you want is fish sauce’s salty and savory properties. Worcestershire sauce has the benefit of being very easy to find compared to fish sauce and some of its alternatives.
While MSG does not provide the fishy character of fish sauce, it does bring umami to dishes and will be useful if that flavor profile is mainly what a dish needs.