Asian Fish Pastes and Sauces

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

Asian fermented fish pastes and sauces are vital manifestations of a preparation that has mostly disappeared in Europe but was once well known as garum or liquamen, the fish sauce of Rome (see box). (Modern ketchup, a sweet-sour tomato condiment, shares its name with kecap, an Indonesian salty fish condiment.) Fish sauces play the same role that soy sauces do in regions where soy doesn’t grow well, and were probably the original model for soy sauce.

Fish pastes and sauces are two phases of the same simple preparation. A mass of fish or shellfish is mixed with salt to give an overall salt concentration between 10% and 30%, and sealed in a closed container for from one month (for pastes) to 24 months (for sauces). Fish pastes tend to have relatively strong fish and cheese notes, while the more thoroughly transformed fish sauces are more meaty and savory. The most prized fish sauces come from the first tapping of the mass; after boiling, flavoring, and/or aging, they play the lead role in dipping sauces. Second-quality sauces from re-extraction of the mass may be supplemented with caramel, molasses, or roasted rice, and are used in cooking to add depth to the flavor of a complex dish.