Fish Sauce or Nam Pla in Thai is practically an indispensable Thai ingredient in the cooking of most Thai food.
I have yet to visit a Thai kitchen that does not keep one or more bottles in stock in their pantry.
Literally translated from Thai, nam pla is "fish water" and is made
from the fermentation of selected anchovies - resulting in this pale,
watery golden brown sauce with a salty flavor in its pure form.
Like olive oil, there are many grades of fish sauce. The better quality ones are generally more refine in taste, light golden brown in color and virtually distinct with a salty taste derived from fermentation and quality of the anchovies.
The smell is usually quite aromatic and fragrant but to the uninitiated though, the first sniff can be very pungent and off-putting. However, once added to the cooking, that pungent smell is absorbed by the other flavors and you will definitely be pleasantly surprised by the taste and the flavor. Even though it complements really well in savory Thai food, it is now widely used in other types of cuisines globally.
So, how is it used in Thai Food and Thai Cooking?
1. Thai recipes call for the use of fish sauce like how the Chinese recipes calls for soy sauce. It does not replace salt but using nam pla means that the salt content can be less and you can also play with the flavor of the dish better.
2. The best nam pla is usually used in dishes - especially Thai salads like larb gai and soups like tom kha gai and even condiments like chili sauces to bring out the contrast in the subtleness of the flavor. This is especially because good quality nam pla is lighter, cleaner and more delicate in flavor.
3. You probably do not need the finest grade for curries and stir fry dishes. I tend to use a lesser quality nam pla due to the cost factor but hey, there is no strict rules here so if you can afford it, why not the best all the way!
4. Thai Dishes that do not use nam pla are probably Chinese Influenced dish like chicken rice (khao mun gai), braised belly pork (pa loh) and obviously desserts. However, the Thais will then use nam pla in (chili) sauces to complement the dish.
5. You can get a selection of nam pla in Asian grocery shops and supermarkets. Try to look for a higher percentage of anchovies in relation to the salt and sugar content on the label.
6. To flavor your dishes, initially use nam pla sparingly in your cooking, taste test and then add more as required
7. Always look for a good quality brand for a lighter, cleaner and more delicate in flavor.
8. If you are not much into using fish sauce, buy a small bottle.
Thai Food Lovers