Easy to make, and ready in just two minutes, my vegan fish sauce delivers the essential umami-bomb that's central to Thai cooking.
What is fish sauce?
In SE Asian cooking, fish sauce is used to give that distinctly salty, slightly sweet umami hit to dishes, and is an essential component of the Thai holy flavour grail of hot, sour, salty, sweet.
Yummy as it makes the food though, it's bad news for vegans and vegetarians, which means you need a decent substitute. Vegan fish sauce to the rescue! It's really easy to make, and ready in a couple of minutes.
In Thai, fish sauce is called nam pla, which literally means 'water of fish'. However, mai means 'not', so I call my vegan fish sauce, mai nam pla - 'not fish sauce'. It may not be entirely grammatically correct but it works for me!
It's not just Asian!
Although fish sauce is ubiquitous in Southeast Asian fare, it’s actually been used for over two and half millennia in Southern and Western Europe too. The ancient Greeks used it, as did the Spanish, French, Portuguese, and the Romans, who called it garum (and liquamen).
In fact, in Campania, about an hour’s drive from our old apartment in Pozzuoli, there is a town called Cetara, where people still make and use a similar product, called Colatura di alici... literally, leakage of anchovies. Given the method of production, which I won’t go into because it’s a bit gross, it’s a very apt name!
Roman fish sauce
The Romans, being the gastronomes they were, and not being content with any old garum, would also add;
- honey to make meligarum. Mel is Latin for honey, hence Melissa... meaning honey bee.
- wine to make oenogarum. From the Greek, oinos… if you pronounce each letter separately, it’s easy to see how we get the word, wine. (An oenophile is the name for a wine connoisseur - in case you ever need to know.)
- water to make hydrogarum. A drink that was served to Roman legionaries (as though they didn't already have a crappy life).
- vinegar to make oxygarum. Oxy comes from the Greek, oxys, which means sharp or acidic, which is exactly what vinegar is - a sharp, acidic flavour.
Modern-day Worcestershire Sauce could be considered a descendant of garum.
Fish Sauce in Asian cooking
Fish sauce in Asia has been around even longer than garum, and historical records show it being used in China since at least 2,300 years ago, during the Zhou dynasty (c.1046 – 256 BC). During the Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), however, the fish element was abandoned, resulting in what we now know as soy sauce.
Apart from chillies, nam pla is probably the most ubiquitous ingredient of South East Asian cooking, especially in Thailand. Its salty-sweet umami flavour makes it an essential part of dishes such as phad Thai, yum som-o, and som tam ma muang.
Vegan fish sauce recipe
- soy sauce or tamari
- dried shiitake powder
- white miso paste
- fermented bean curd
- rice vinegar
- garlic powder
- tomato purée (aka tomato paste)
How to make vegan fish sauce
- Blitz everything in a high-speed blender for a few seconds, until you have a smooth liquid.
- Strain through a piece of muslin into a glass bottle or jar with a tight-fitting lid, and keep in the fridge for up to three months.
- You can use it 1:1 as a direct replacement in recipes that call for fish sauce.
- If you don't have, or can't get shiitake powder, make your own by grinding dried shiitake mushrooms, either whole or sliced.
- Feel free to sub dried wakame instead of nori: you'll want 5-10g.
- I used to use a Krups F203 coffee grinder to grind my nori before adding it to my old blender, which wasn't very powerful. It worked well but the fish sauce did need to be strained. Now I have my VAC2 and Evolve blenders, I just chuck everything in at the same time, and it does the job beautifully, leaving almost no bits to have to filter!
- You don't want to use reduced salt soy sauce or tamari – one of the functions of fish sauce is to add salt to a dish. Think of fish sauce and chilli as Thai salt and pepper!
To make gluten-free
- You can swap soy-sauce for tamari (don't use low-salt), and use a gluten-free miso (check which grains are used).
Check out these Thai recipes while you're here!
- phad Thai
- som tam ma muang
- nam prik pao
- phad si io
- phad pak boong fai daeng
- massaman curry
- tom yam
- yum som-o
Of course, you can use mai nam pla in other Asian dishes too, and mixed with a bit of nam prik pao, it makes a great dipping sauce.
How To Make Vegan Fish Sauce
- 2 sheets nori
- 250 ml water
- 2 tablespoon all-purpose soy sauce
- 1½ tablespoon dried shiitake powder
- 1½ tablespoon white miso paste
- 1 teaspoon fermented bean curd
- 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon double concentrate tomato purée (aka tomato paste)
- ⅛ teaspoon coarsely-ground black pepper
- Strain through a piece of muslin into a glass bottle or jar with a tight-fitting lid.
- Keep in the fridge for up to three months.
- Use 1:1 in recipes which call for fish sauce
- 1 cup = US cup = 240 ml
- 1 tablespoon = US/UK = 15 ml
- 1 fl oz = US = 30 ml
Mine turned out a milky colour and filtering the bits of nori etc out was nearly impossible. Gunna just see how it turns out after a week in the fridge as the sediment settles. It Tastes good but I dont think the fermented bean curd I got is the same as yours. Mine is salty and very tasty but I wouldnt say its funky, it has little to no smell.
Hmmm, it doesn't sound as though you got fermented tofu, Gerald - you'd definitely have noticed the smell if you had! What colour was it? Not sure why yours turned out a milky colour - the tomato purée and soy sauce alone would make it dark, then add to that the fermented bean curd... How did it turn out though, in the end? Were you able to filter the rest of the nori? xx
Natalie Tamara @ The Tofu Diaries
Ewwww I enjoyed hearing about the literal translations but also kind of wish I didn't know them now haha. This looks great and a much more appealing alternative. I'm not sure if I've ever seen fermented tofu before - is there a specific name it goes by?
I know what you mean, Natalie - it does all sound rather gross, doesn't it?! LOL!
Fermented tofu is also known as fermented beancurd, stinky tofu, fuyu, furu... here's a pic of some red stuff https://www.instagram.com/p/BFY-fm3K5Wb/ !
I used white in this recipe but you could use red too. The jar in the photo, BTW, held quite a lot (c.200g, I think), and cost about £2.50 from a Chinese supermarket in Northampton.
More about fermented tofu here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermented_bean_curd
Sharon @ Bit of the Good Stuff
Fish sauce is gross isn't it? BUT it is essential to replace that umami hit otherwise the dishes do taste like they're lacking something. I've never been any good at replacing it in my home cooking so I would love to give your recipe a try. I'll have to check out the Asian stores in Bath and see if they stock the ingredients. The first recipe I'd make the sauce with is Pad Thai 😀
Yep, it is, Sharon! Or rather, the notion of it is - makes you wonder how someone first discovered it, doesn't it? Rather like that Peruvian (I think) potato pudding, which involves putting spuds outside to freeze, then peeing on them (I may have been lied to about that by QI!). I'm not sure which one is worse, actually. Actually, Casa Marzu - that's got to be worse. **barf**
I really need to get some mung beans sprouting so I can make a phad Thai! xx
Just in right time! Speaking of synchronicity, hehe... just what we needed. Because about the year ago we got all crazy for Corean cuisine which has many great plant based dishes but apart from soy sauce, most common ingredients are fish sauce and oyster sauce. As vegetarian/vegan family we were eager to cook all those great dishes but weren't so eager to use something that was made from fish or oysters. And what to use instead? Especially in our corner of the world where such condiments are rare, expencive and mostly, you don't know the brands, you don't know what are they made of really (with all those E-xyz things in ingredients list, especially thickening agents, hidden gelatines and stuff).
So it's so great to find a post like this. So informative, smart and with right informations for vege/vegan people to know. Especially if you've been places, seen stuff, done your homework thoroughly with historical facts... and then presenting it to us.
Thank you, Nico, we'll be using this sauce soon! It's simple, we do have everything we need in our pantry so I'm off to make some!
That's such great news, Mari! And of course, I know exactly what you mean about being able to find the right ingredients in our part of the world... it's not easy, is it? Thank goodness for Bio & Bio! (Although, horribly expensive.)
Of course, the beauty of making stuff like this ourselves, is that we can tweak them to suit our tastes too. Let me know how you get on with it! xx
Will they have fermented tofu at Whole Foods or is that something I need to order or make myself. I hate to expend a lot of resources on it since it is only 1 teaspoon of the recipe. How important is that and is there a dubstiture? Thanks!
Hi Candace, thanks for stopping by! I honestly have no idea whether Whole Foods would stock the fermented tofu - I don't live in the US. Your best bet would probably be to call into your local branch. If you have an Asian supermarket in your locale, you'll be able to buy it in small jars. In terms of a substitute, you could use doenjang. It's not as pungent as fermented tofu, so use 2 tsp instead.
If you can't find either, just add a little more miso. It won't be quite the same but it will still be good. And salty! Let me know how you get on! xx
Nico, firstly "leakage of anchovies" ewwwww.
Secondly I can't tell you how many times people have asked me how I sub for fish sauce.
I tell them the extra little things I add to a recipe to get that funky umami flavour like miso, nori and fermented [email protected]*. Now I can just send them your way and get them out of my hair.
Great recipe! You are a work horse. -Hanne
I know, I know, Hanne - it just sounds so gross, doesn't it? When I first went to live in Thailand, I learned how they make fish sauce there, and yep, same same! What I also find interesting is that nam pla ra, which is uber-fermented fish sauce, and often the fish too, is not so different to the Scandinavian icky fish thing. I love finding out how food travels, and how different cultures often have similar foods.
Fermented [email protected]* - ha ha ha! I love fermented tofu. Not enough to eat it straight out of the pot, mind but as a flavouring, it's pretty epic! I am aware that there are a few people who claim to be experts on Thai cooking, who have taken it upon themselves to deem that anyone who puts seaweed in their vegan fish sauce is a complete wrong'un but y'know what, I say if it works for you, then do it. I do! LOL!
About four years ago, when I first attempted to make mai nam pla for myself, I did actually try some non-vegan stuff because I needed to know what I was aiming to recreate. I've tried a couple of commercial vegan brands since then but none of them have really come up to scratch; one was too sweet, the other was full of chilli... I guess that particular one meant as a dipping sauce, rather than for cooking. I really like my version though, especially how quick it is to make. I do believe this is my best one yet (there've been many incarnations!) - I hope you and your friends do too! xx