You might not know much about it, but if you’re a fan of Southeast Asian cuisine (like satay or pad thai) then you’ve definitely enjoyed a dash of fish sauce in your food. Some might describe the concoction as malodorous, but none familiar with fish sauce will contest its value as a cooking ingredient. Since the buzz around this punchy ingredient is growing, you might find yourself confronted with a recipe that requires a teaspoon of this liquid gold. But if you don’t have any hanging out in your kitchen, don’t worry—you can substitute for fish sauce with one of the options below (although you might want to consider stocking up on the real thing the next time you’re at the store—more on that below).
What Is Fish Sauce?
Commonly used in Thai, Indonesian and Vietnamese cuisine, this pungent cooking ingredient packs a serious umami punch. And does it smell…fishy? Truth be told, the smell is a tad strong but once the stuff has been added to a dish, the fishy and funky first impression melts away and you’re left with dreamy, savory deliciousness. Seriously, fish sauce is a thing of beauty that delivers briny, salty flavor with a subtle, but important, sour note—and more people are starting to catch on.
So where does this magical balance of umami flavors come from? Yep, you guessed it—fish. Fish sauce is made from heavily salted anchovies that are left to ferment for long periods of time, hence the tangy and salty taste of the stuff. Although fish sauce is known as a staple in Southeast Asian cuisine, it is surprisingly versatile and many chefs celebrate it for its ability to bring out other complex flavors in a dish (like in this roasted tomato bucatini). Bottom line: Fish sauce is gaining popularity for good reason, so don’t be surprised if this ingredient starts popping up in more and more recipes you intend to make at home. That’s why you should seriously consider picking up a bottle of the stuff to keep in your kitchen (an unopened bottle will keep in the pantry for years while an opened bottle can last for up to a year in the fridge).
The Best Substitutes for Fish Sauce
Now you know how awesome fish sauce is, but that won’t help you much if you don’t have any or can’t use it due to dietary restrictions. Fortunately, there are several suitable stand-ins for fish sauce that will allow you to proceed with your cooking plans—including a vegan option.
1. Soy Sauce
Soy sauce is a pretty common kitchen staple, and if you have some on hand, food scientist Jules Clancy from Stonesoup says you can put it to use as a fish sauce substitute in any recipe. She recommends starting with less soy sauce than fish sauce and adding more as needed (try using half the amount required and go from there). And for an even better stand-in, add a squeeze of lime to your soy sauce to achieve a more desirable balance between salty and sour.
2. Soy Sauce and Rice Vinegar
According to the award-winning food bloggers and cook book authors over at A Couple Cooks, the best mock fish sauce is a combination of (equal parts) soy sauce and rice vinegar. This two-ingredient option is along the same lines as the soy sauce-lime combo, but an even closer match that can be used as a 1:1 substitute wherever fish sauce is called for.
3. Worcestershire Sauce
If you don’t have any of the above ingredients, chef Nigella Lawson suggests reaching for a bottle of Worcestershire sauce instead. Per Lawson, this popular condiment is made with anchovies and tamarind, so the flavor profile is a close match. However, “use it sparingly,” she cautions. The stuff is strong so just a few drops will do the trick.
4. Vegan Soy Sauce
Looking for a vegan alternative to fish sauce? You’re in luck: Sylivia Fountaine, chef and food blogger from Feasting at Home, has a recipe that nails the umami flavor of fish sauce...without the fish. This substitute is basically a super reduced mushroom broth that’s infused with garlic and soy. Once you whip some of this up, you can use it as a 1:1 substitute in any dish that calls for fish sauce.
Unsurprisingly, anchovies—the small fish used to make fish sauce—make a decent substitute for this fermented condiment. Clancy says that you can finely dice a couple of anchovies and toss them into a curry or stir fry. This swap isn’t her first choice, but it will add salty umami flavor, just without the tangy component that fish sauce brings to the table. To make this swap, try one anchovy fillet per tablespoon of fish sauce and then adjust according to taste.