In Praise of Fish Sauce
Published April 11, 2018
It was on a recent trip to Vietnam this past December, that I unexpectedly rediscovered salad. There, amidst steaming bowls of brothy noodle soup and giant plates of drool-worthy grilled meats, were these little unsuspecting produce-forward wonders. Salads bursting with flavours and textures beyond anything I had ever imagined. Each bite a new experience, we savoured every mouthful. Safe to say it completely blew my mind. This recipe pays homage to that experience while also highlighting all the beautiful spring greens the markets seem to be bursting with here these days.
Nuoc cham is a very common condiment used in vietnamese cooking that uses fish sauce as one of its main ingredients. It is often eaten as a dipping sauce, but can also be used as a salad dressing. The resulting mixture is pungent and intense to say the least, but yet still maintains a fine equilibrium because of the lime juice, sugar and chillies also used to make it.
For those who are not familiar with fish sauce, I hope you will come to love it as much as I do, for it is one of my absolute favourite ingredients to cook with right now. It has the ability to season just like salt, but also brings its own complexity and depth of flavour due to its fishy origins. In Vietnam, fish sauce is made by fermenting anchovies with salt, but as there are many different brands of fish sauce available, the flavours and ingredients used to make them can vary. I have currently been using a fish sauce made primarily from crabs which lends a distinct shellfish taste to the dressing, but feel free to use whichever fish sauce you are able to get your hands on.
At the restaurant I filet and smoke my own trout to use in this recipe, but I realize that this isn’t always the easiest task to undertake in a home kitchen. Hot smoked salmon or even candied salmon would make a delicious alternative.
For the salad greens, I prefer to make my own mix using a combination of interesting and hearty lettuces and greens I come across at the market. You could readily substitute with a head of fresh green or red head lettuce and a bag of baby kale or mixed greens if necessary.
Oh, and if you are a fan of spicy food, don’t hesitate to leave the seeds in the birds eye chillies when you chop them up in order to turn the heat up a little.
Link to recipe here.