Thursday, August 25, 2011

Homemade Fish Sauce Recipe- Nam Pla

Homemade Fermented Fish Sauce
I love exploring exotic cuisines. Discovering new ways of cooking, new food combinations, is so exciting for me. I usually learn about these different types of foods while working my way around the blog-o-sphere, and on my recent travels I came across a bunch of Thai and Vietnamese recipes, all of them sounding very intriguing, but all non options for me because... The ubiquitous ingredient, found in nearly every recipe I chanced upon, was an ingredient that I'd never used or even tasted before in my life, never even seen it being sold in any stores I'd been to even when living back in the US, and now that I live abroad, have no chance of finding that ingredient.

That ingredient was fish sauce, a fermented fish condiment, also known by the names nam pla, nuac mam, and nam pa, among others. Fish sauce adds a fishy soy sauce like flavor to foods, and is used in stir fries, dipping sauces, curries, etc..

What do I do when I discover a food that I can't buy where I live?
Why, make it myself, of course.
So that is what I did. I made this at the same time as I was starting to make my homemade soy sauce, so I was already engaged in one "very gross" fermentation process, so I figured, why not try another crazy experiment at the same time? And by golly, it worked out very well!

Homemade Fish Sauce Recipe

Here's how you also can make a fermented fish sauce. I don't have an exact recipe, only an imprecise set of instructions, because you can make this recipe differently depending on the ingredients you have available, and I'm sure it'll all come out great. I used fresh sardines for mine, because sardines are one of the cheapest fish available in my area, but you can use any type of fish. You can use regular, standard fish with vertebrae (anchovies are one of the typical fish used in making fish sauce), or shellfish, or even octopus. It doesn't matter, so long as its fish.

Raw fish

1. Take your fish and chop it up, bones, head, scales, flesh and all. The smaller the pieces, the better.

2. Mix with a lot of salt. I can't tell you an exact amount as I didn't measure, but you want it salty enough to kill any bad bacteria (this is raw sardines we're talking about) and prevent mold growth. I also know that if this is supposed to be a soy sauce replacement, it would need to be quite salty, so I was very generous with the salt.

3. Add some water. Not a ton, but since you want it to ferment and the fish may not have so much liquid, its a good idea to put some water in to fill in the spaces between the fish parts.

4. Put your mixture in a glass jar. Cover it. This probably would have fermented best covered with a cheesecloth, but as I was fermenting it in my kitchen, I had no interest in having the constant fishy smell, so I just kept the cover of the jar sealed tightly and would open it once every day or two to allow the mixture to "breathe".

5. Leave your fermented fishy stuff on the counter, on your shelf, in your pantry for a while. Give it a shake every few days. I've read to leave it as long as a year, but after 3 weeks I got too impatient and started using it and it was fine. Then again, I've never tasted store bought fish sauce, so I don't have what to compare, but it worked out well in the recipes calling for fish sauce so I assume it tastes as it should.

6. You'll notice little bubbles appearing inside the mixture, and that's good, because it means your stuff is fermenting. At a certain point, you'll also see the mixture separating out into different layers. That's also fine. This is what my jar looked like right before I put my fish sauce to use, a little less than 3 weeks after starting it fermenting.

7. Using a mesh strainer, strain the solids out of your mixture. See all the bones and scales and solids that I strained out.

8. You'll be left with this icky looking brown sludge. You should run this through a cheesecloth to take out any small solids left inside, and it'll be less sludgy and looking slightly more appealing.

9. Bring the fish sauce to a boil on the stove for a few minutes to pasteurize it. This will make your kitchen reek to high heavens, and your husband will come out of the bedroom and ask you what type of crazy experiment you're conducting, it smells that bad. But this is just a one time thing, and then you won't have to stink up your house anymore.
And let me reassure you- it tastes a whole lot better than it smells. And looks.

10. Once pasteurized, taste the sauce. Add more water and salt to taste. I added enough water to thin it out to a reasonable consistency, and then added enough salt so it would be a suitable soy sauce replacement. 

11. Bottle your fish sauce in a glass jar or bottle. Refrigerate. (I am not sure if necessary, but that's what I did.) Once cool, if you used a fatty fish, you'll notice that a layer of fat will harden across the top of your jar, much like when making and chilling real chicken soup. Scoop off this salty, fatty layer if desired, or just push aside to access the fish sauce.

12. Use this condiment in Thai, Veitnamese, Indonesian, Burmese and other South Asian cuisines in recipes that call for fish sauce. I used it for these gluten free fish spring rolls, and also made a sweet and sour dipping sauce with the fish sauce. It certainly was a hit! (I plan on sharing the recipe for those spring rolls tomorrow but no guarantees.)

Have you ever eaten fish sauce before? Do you like it? What type of fish was it made from? What is your favorite dish or dishes made with fish sauce?
Do you stock fish sauce in your home? Why or why not?
Do you think you'd try out this method of making homemade fish sauce?
And honestly- what process sounds scarier/weirder/more far out? Homemade fish sauce like this? Or my homemade soy sauce?

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  1. DO you think you needed to pasteurize it? Wouldn't it be better to keep the bacteria alive?

  2. I use fish sauce all the time--It smells horrible and tastes bad by itself, but it is so delicious in all of my Asian recipes! I make som tam with it (spicy green papaya salad) and when fish sauce is in combination with other things (mainly sugar, lime and Thai chili peppers)it is wonderful! I didn't even know that I could make my own homemade fish sauce. It is a bit intimidating, but I wouldn't mind trying it out some day in the future.

  3. This ingredient is key to making aunthentic asian fried rice at home. I don't measure, sorry. I splash a good amount over my fried rice along with soy sauce and sesame oil. Fresh or powdered onion, garlic, and some sort of chili or pepper is all else it needs.

  4. I'm sorry, but being Vietnamese, I can tell you with 100% absolute certainty that this is no way the fish sauce that is referenced by those Vietnamese and Thai recipes. It's fish and it's a sauce, but it is not that type of fish sauce, and the flavor is completely different. There is a type of Vietnamese fish sauce similar to the one you made, but it's not nouc mam. You should definitely try to obtain an actual bottle of fish sauce if possible, even if you're abroad, and see what it actually tastes like.

  5. Based on my supermarket experience, more than a handful of commercially made fish sauce contain additives like MSG, sugar, and preservatives. Furthermore, because most of them are sold only as liquid, there is no way to tell how it was made, since there are no solids floating around. On top of all that, they are not exactly cheap.

    Therefore, if you can purchase fish at a reasonable price, and if the rest of the household is not fussy about the strong fermented fish smell, try fermenting fish at home. You get to control what goes in your fishy experiment.

    For those who are not used to fermented fish, buy a little bit of anchovy paste and try it out on various foodstuffs like hard boiled eggs and roasted beef. While it does smell, it is nowhere as overwhelming as home made fish sauce.

    Speaking of the need for fish sauce in most authentic Asian recipes: kimchi comes to my mind. If you like making kimchi at home, then you better have fish sauce to spare. With a good fish sauce and a plenty of garlic, there is absolutely no need to add MSG (most commercially made kimchi is loaded with MSG, and some even have added sugar!).

  6. Fermenting fish at home will smell upon opening the container filled with the fishy experiment. It would be a big plus if the rest of the household is not offended by the odor. No foul odor, no gain!

    If you can buy fish at a reasonable price, then make your own fish sauce. You have control over what goes in. More than a handful of commercially made fish sauce contain additives like MSG and some even have added sugar. Furthermore, you really cannot tell what has been added by these manufacturers.

    Speaking of authentic Asian food, kimchi comes to my mind. Most commercially prepared kimchi suffers from added MSG (and some even have added sugar!). With good fish sauce and garlic, there is absolutely no need to resort to MSG and sugar.

    Anyone who is not used to fermented fish, but open-minded, should consider buying a little bit of anchovy paste. Try it on hard-boiled eggs, roasted beef, salads, and so on. If you like the enhancement of flavor brought out by the anchovy paste, then you might be open to something more potent like home-made fish sauce.

  7. Any good, creative ideas on keeping the overwhelming odor of the fermented sauce down when you're ready to filter the dregs out? My jar of fish sauce is in 3 layers of plastic in the fridge, ready to be filtered, but smells SO bad.

  8. You could probably filter the jar outside and throw the chunks straight into the trash, or better yet, bury in a compost pile. If you throw it away you might put it in a plastic bag to keep it from smelling up your trash bin.

    As for the cooking, can't think of how to do that outside, unless you have camping gear/stove.

    I have also read that some people let it sit at room temp for a few days and then keep it in the fridge for a few weeks.

  9. You could probably filter the jar outside and throw the chunks straight into the trash, or better yet, bury in a compost pile. If you throw it away you might put it in a plastic bag to keep it from smelling up your trash bin.

    As for the cooking, can't think of how to do that outside, unless you have camping gear/stove.

    I have also read that some people let it sit at room temp for a few days and then keep it in the fridge for a few weeks.

  10. When you cut up the fish should you remove the entrails;.

    1. Use the hole fish: head and entrails. This increases to nutrient content.

  11. I have never made fish sauce but this article sounds like they were making Pala (thai) which is used in alot of thai dishes...and it looks like the picture above not like the bottle fish sauce I have seen. They sell Pala at the store too...the northern eastern thai people use the for the thai papaya salad for the northern people (Thum Loas). So you would put the actually fish sauce and Pala in the salad with other ingredients....that is my thought about this article...Some Walmart sell the fish sauce so use the item for this article as the Pala and I think you will be good....

  12. You should add red and green Thai chilies sliced thin, or thin cayenne or serrano peppers, garlic, and a bit of lime juice, let the peppers steep in the sauce a while. That's a condiment served with nearly every Thai meal


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