A bottle of Red Boat fish sauce

You can never have enough kinds of fish sauce.

Music for this episode is by the galaxy’s own Breakmaster Cylinder, Mark Bramhill, and Ashton Paul Drake. Illustration by Jessie Lamworth.


NEVEN MRGAN: I’m Neven Mrgan and I’m the world’s biggest fan of fish sauce.

I grew up in Croatia. I moved to the U.S. When I was 19 and when I was about five my family went to the Croatian coast where we would vacation in the summer. And one evening my grandma took me for a walk to a little town near where we were staying and we decided to have pizza and the one she ordered that they had such a specific flavor that for the rest of my life I’ve been trying to hunt it down. And as best as I can tell, it was made with fresh anchovies and I’ve had anchovy pizza since, but never anything quite that specific, that exact flavor. And the first time that I had Southeast Asian fish sauce, some, you know, 25 years later it hit me.

It was like, wow! That’s the flavor! I was instantly a fan.

Fish sauce tastes like fish, which is kind of obvious. I happen to love fish from bland whitefish to like fermented funky fish. Fish sauce is on the fermented side of things. And so it tastes salty, but that’s not all it is. It’s an umami bomb, which means that it has that hard to describe addictive savory quality to it.

Another thing that people say about fish sauce is, “Oh, it smells so bad. How can you eat that?” But to that, I say, it’s an ingredient ! It’s something you use in cooking. I don’t sit and drink it by the teaspoon. Actually, I do sit and drink it by the teaspoons sometimes just to try it. Um, but that’s not normally what you do.

It also has a lot of variety. Some of them will taste just really salty and others will be almost like a sweet syrup. I stock at least three or four brands at all times, depending on whether I’m cooking with it or using it to just season salads, or I have my like $14 bottle, which is like the primo stuff that just ends up used as like finishing fish sauce. I think I could tell in a blind case test which one is which.

If you haven’t cooked with fish sauce before and you’re looking for a way in, one of the simplest things you can do is go to your local store, preferably Asian store, buy preferably an Asian brand, Red Boat is a good one. And then take a vegetable like cherry tomatoes and just season those with fish sauce. And maybe like some sliced green chilies and herbs and just try that. You’re using fish sauce is just as salt the way you would if you were just making a simple tomato salad

Twenty years ago, if you’d gone into an average American restaurant and the menu specified fish sauce for a dish, you would have been completely freaked out. Whereas today it would be fine. A lot of chefs, especially big name chefs, are using it as like a secret flavor boost in a lot of recipes, like if you’re making chili or a beef stew, pretty much every respected recipe today will tell you to add some fish sauce towards the end to boost umami flavor of it. And then the Portland restaurant Pok-Pok, which serves Thai food, has been for, you know, 10 years selling these incredibly popular fish sauce wings. It’s chicken wings with fish sauce and sugar. And these regularly ended up on like lists of top 10 wings in the U.S. People can’t get enough of them. And I feel like that might be sort of the poster child of fish sauce in the U.S. right now. When people hear that I like it or that I’m excited about it, they definitely think that it’s like a weird Neven thing. But I should say I have a lot of like food friends. A lot of them are this way about fish sauce. This is something we can all bond over and debate the best brands and best applications, but we are all in agreement that fish sauce is good stuff.

MARK BRAMHILL: Enthusiast! is produced by me, Mark Bramhill. Today’s music is by the galaxy’s own Breakmaster Cylinder, myself, and Ashton Paul Drake. You can find some of Neven’s favorite fish sauce-forward recipes, and lots more to be joyful about, at enthusiastpodcast.com. Thanks for listening. Now go tell a friend about something that brings you joy.