Fish sauce, the pungent, tea-colored liquid that flavors the cooking of Southeast Asia, has invaded Western kitchens.
Made from salted and fermented anchovy juice, it brings a depth of flavor, or umami, to many dishes.
Umami is widely considered the fifth taste along with sour, bitter, salty, and sweet. The taste of umami is best described as a sort of meaty savoriness like that found in Parmigiano Reggiano.
I call fish sauce my secret ingredient; the one I reach for when a dish needs a certain something to bring the flavors together.
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Although it has a pungent, smelly aroma, it tastes neither strong nor fishy. It is known as nuoc mam in Vietnam, nam pla in Thailand and patis in the Philippines.
Fish sauce became my kitchen staple when I first tried it as a substitute for anchovies in a Caesar salad dressing. I found the stand-in added a new dimension to my dressing, and now I use a judicious splash in tomato dishes, fish soups, green vegetables, and stews — even in a Bloody Mary.
It adds a spark of flavor to enliven bland foods unlike anything else.
Rather than used straight, fish sauce is often diluted with water and balanced with lime juice, chiles and sugar such as in a Thai or Vietnamese dipping sauce, or added to a marinade or curry.
Any place anchovies go, fish sauce can go, too, and more easily. You can find fish sauce in the Asian foods aisle of your local grocery store. If you rarely use fish sauce, refrigerate the bottle. Otherwise, store it in a cool, dark place in the pantry. If lots of crystals form or it smells acrid, discard the bottle.
Although a 24-ounce bottle may look like a lifetime supply, it goes quickly once you discover how it can be used in pasta sauces, meatloaf, cooked broccoli rabe, kale, Swiss chard or spinach.
It’s great to use fish sauce to season a steak before or after cooking, similar to how you would use Worcestershire sauce or anchovy butter. By the way, Worcestershire sauce also is made with anchovies.
Carole Kotkin is manager of the Ocean Reef Club cooking school.
Steak with Thai Salad
Adapted from Flavorwalla by Floyd Cardoz, Artisan ($29.95)
The excellent acidity in a Tenute Silvio Nardi Rosso di Montalcino DOC 2014 ($25.99) wine pairs well with this juicy steak and spicy salad.
For the Steak
3 tablespoons canola oil
6 garlic cloves, smashed
Freshly ground black pepper
One 1-pound flank steak
For the Salad
1/3 cup fish sauce
3 tablespoons canola oil
Juice of 3 limes
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh Thai chile, or more to taste
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced on the bias (white and green parts)
1 cup thinly sliced Thai basil leaves, with tender stems
1 cup thinly sliced washed and dried cilantro leaves with tender stems
1 cup mint leaves
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion
1. In a large zip-lock bag, combine the oil, garlic, and a generous pinch each of salt and pepper. Seal the bag and rub the mixture around a bit to blend it together. Add the steak and massage the bag to coat the steak with the marinade. Seal the bag and refrigerate for 4 hours.
2. In a large bowl, combine the fish sauce, oil, lime juice, sugar, ginger, and Thai chile; stir. Cover and set aside at room temperature for 15 minutes to 2 hours.
3. Prepare a high-heat grill. Remove the bag with the steak from the refrigerator and let stand at room temperature while the grill heats.
4. Remove the steak from the marinade and grill for about 6 minutes per side for rare, or to the desired doneness. Transfer the steak to a cooling rack to rest for 6 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, add the scallions, Thai basil, cilantro, mint, and red onion to the bowl with the vinaigrette. Toss gently to combine.
6. Slice the steak against the grain and arrange on a serving platter. Spoon the salad over the steak and serve.
Yield: 4 servings