I didn’t grow up eating or using fish sauce; the first time I ever tried it was in nước chấm, a Vietnamese dipping sauce for gỏi cuốn, the fresh, chewy spring rolls my college roommate made for Friendsgiving one year. After tasting the sauce, I was an immediate convert—the bold, salty, complex flavor seemed to enhance everything it touched, transforming the most average of foods into intensely savory dishes.
Though forms of fish sauce were enjoyed in Greece, Rome and other parts of the ancient Mediterranean, the sauce we know and love today hails from Southeast Asia. It’s widely featured in the cuisines of countries like Vietnam and Thailand, and as these cuisines continue to gain popularity in the U.S., we see fish sauce popping up more and more in recipes and on restaurant menus in the country. For those of us who don’t come from a culture that regularly uses fish sauce, it’s important to be respectful of the ingredient, as many remember the ridicule they endured while eating or cooking with fish sauce before the ingredient got so popular outside of Southeast Asia.
What I discovered that day my roommate introduced me to this ingredient was that fish sauce tastes good in pretty much everything. Of course, you can and should choose to use it in the dishes it’s traditionally found in, but fish sauce can be used for way more than you probably realize. These are some of my favorite ways to use the delicious, salty sauce.
1. Flavorful Meat Marinade
If you already have a meat marinade recipe that you use over and over again, I can say with almost absolute certainty that adding fish sauce to it will make it even better. But one of the things I love about fish sauce is that it doesn’t need to lean on other ingredients to make a good marinade. When I’m feeling especially lazy, I’ll just splash some fish sauce onto the meat I’m cooking, and in a matter of hours, the meat takes on a savory flavor that could never be achieved with salt and spices alone.
2. Savory Pasta Sauce
There is perhaps no ingredient that can elevate a red pasta sauce more than fish sauce. Just a dash of it really highlights the savory notes of a good tomato-based sauce; it complements the sweetness of the fruit and adds a deep, salty complexity to the whole dish. I think fish sauce shines best in a red pasta sauce made from scratch, but you can also use it to give a boost of flavor to a store-bought pasta sauce.
3. Salty Salad Dressing
Mastering a basic vinaigrette is the best way to make sure you actually want to eat your salads. If you’re getting bored with your standard recipe, though, you may want to consider adding some fish sauce to the mix—just remember to reduce the amount of salt you use. It’ll give you the same saltiness that makes your veggies and other ingredients pop, but it also has a deep, fermented flavor that can transform a basic salad into your new favorite lunch.
4. Seasoned Scrambled Eggs
In Vietnam, it’s standard to add fish sauce to egg dishes. Give it a try, and you’ll understand why—the potently flavorful ingredient makes the perfect counterpart for the neutral flavor profile of eggs. I personally love adding fish sauce to scrambled eggs, but you can also make an omelet or even marinate boiled eggs in fish sauce.
5. Complex Soups and Stews
Fish sauce makes a complexly flavored addition to just about any broth-based soup, from phở, where it’s traditionally used as a staple ingredient to flavor the fragrant broth, to French onion soup, where it adds an additional layer of flavor to the already rich soup base. I love adding it to chicken noodle soup, and providing you’re not intentionally making a vegetarian soup, it can deepen the flavor of an otherwise unremarkable vegetable soup as well. It’s always the first ingredient I reach for when I take a sip of broth and realize that something’s missing.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.