Fish Sauce: An Ancient Vietnamese Condiment

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The purest form of fish sauce has two ingredients: salt and fish. In most cases, the fish in question are anchovies but mackerel or salmon are used in some variations.

Fish sauce dates back to Ancient Greece and Rome. In Ancient Greece, it was known as garos; it was called garum in Ancient Rome. Mentions of garum have been found in Roman literature from the 4th century BCE. Archaeologists have found the ruins of ancient garum factories all over the Mediterranean region. They can be found in what is now Spain and Portugal. Pompeii was famed for its garum.

Fish sauce isn’t much in modern Italian cooking, except for the sauce known as colatura di alici, which is still made in the Salerno region. One theory among historians is that the Romans stopped making garum after the Roman Empire’s fall because salt became too difficult to source. The cost of salt and the loss of trade routes resulted in fish sauce’s decline alongside the empire’s.

Asian fish sauce appears to have developed independently of the European version. It most likely originated in Vietnam and was influenced by Chinese soy sauce, which originally included fish among the ingredients. Researchers who have examined garum from preserved containers in Pompeii and compared them to modern Asian fish sauce found that they were almost identical.

Fish sauce is a staple in Vietnam and has been for centuries. However, the US imposed an embargo on trading with the country for 20 years after the communist takeover. As a result of the embargo, Vietnam could no longer sell fish sauce to Europe or America. Thai manufacturers stepped in to meet the demand. Vietnam’s 20-year absence is why the market is dominated by Thai brands.

Fish sauce flavor profile

Fish sauce has a smell that can only be described as acrid and fishy. However, its flavor is intensely savory. It brings a strong umami character to any dish in which it is used. Because of the smell, you should use it in moderation in any dish where you don’t want an overly fishy flavor profile.

Health benefits of fish sauce

Fish sauce is not normally considered a rich source of nutrients but it does contain important compounds that can help to improve your health. Those include:

  • Protein: Fish sauce is a decent source of the protein your body needs to build tissues.
  • Calcium: Fish sauce isn’t exactly rich in calcium, but there is enough in it to consider it a worthwhile source.

With fish sauce in your diet, you may be able to treat or prevent multiple health problems including:

  • High blood pressure: Despite the condiment’s high sodium content, animal studies have found that a diet that includes fish sauce tends to lower blood pressure. Researchers found the same enzymes used in ACE inhibitor medications to be present in fish sauce.
  • Diabetes: The amino acids in fish sauce help to stimulate insulin production and make insulin more effective.
  • Inflammation: The fermentation of fish sauce produces enzymes that boost your immune system and help to relieve inflammation. As a result, fish sauce may help to treat arthritis and similar inflammatory conditions.

Common uses

Most Vietnamese households use fish sauce quite often. Vietnamese cooks use fish sauce in marinades for meat dishes and soups. It’s also used to make seafood and noodle dishes.


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