Fish sauce is a liquid condiment composed mostly of, fish! It is usually dark in color and is made by packing various kinds of fish and oils into a salt-filled container. Fishes used include mackerel, shrimp, and anchovies.
The sauce is popular with Thai, Vietnamese, and Indonesian cuisines, and it’s used to season many popular dishes. Fish sauce has a distinct umami flavor, thanks to the salt packing, and is thus used to add umami to recipes like pad thai and soups. Fish sauce is also often used as a base ingredient for many complex recipes.
So what’s the best substitute for fish sauce? The best substitute for fish sauce is soy sauce. Soy sauce, like fish sauce, is made from fermentation. But instead of fish, it’s made from soybeans, water, wheat and salt. It is high in amino acids, has a rich umami flavor, and is suitable for most fish sauce recipes.
You can also add other ingredients like minced anchovies and lime vinegar for more flavor.
Overview of Fish Sauce
Fish sauce is usually fermented for up to two years. During this time, the fishes release glutamate, an amino acid that’s used to make protein. As the fishes ferment, the salt also kills bacteria in the fish.
Besides protein, fish sauce is also high in sodium, iodine, and vitamins A and D. It generally contains most of the ingredients you find in fishes. When shopping for fish sauce, it’s important to look for the best brands, as these will provide the most nutritional benefit.
Some manufacturers dilute their fish sauces with water, reducing the nutritional value and making them taste salty. Fish sauce that was shortly fermented will also taste unpleasantly fishy, which ruins most recipes.
Why Replace Fish Sauce?
- You want a change of pace: Fish sauce is highly versatile and can be used in several recipes, from soups to packed ramen. However, its substitutes have recipes of their own, and you may simply want a change of pace. For example, fish sauce isn’t suitable for many vegetarian and vegan recipes.
- You want more nutrients: The nutrient profile of fish sauce is limited to proteins, vitamins and sodium. However, suitable alternatives have more to offer, like antioxidants, minerals, and even calories. Cooking with fish sauce alone might limit your nutritional benefit.
- You’re trying to avoid the fishy flavor: Poorly fermented fish sauce tastes fishy, which can be unpleasant for some recipes. Substituting fish sauce is a great way to avoid this. Many alternatives offer the umami flavor and nutritional benefits without the salty taste.
- You don’t want sodium: Fish sauce is rich in proteins and vitamins, but it is also packed with sodium. Being fermented for years, salt is a large part of its make-up. This makes it unsuitable for individuals on a sodium diet.
Best Substitutes for Fish Sauce
Best Overall Substitute for Fish Sauce: Soy Sauce
Soy sauce is an adequate substitute for fish sauce. They have the same umami flavor, since both are made with salt fermentation. Soy sauce is also a large part of Asian recipes, and it has tons of uses. It is suitable for most fish sauce recipes. The preparation of soy sauce can alter its taste, flavor and health benefits.
Soy sauce has health benefits that are lacking in fish sauce, like fiber, and minerals like manganese and phosphorus. There are various types of soy sauce, and they include light, dark, and thick varieties. The condiment has a long shelf life when the bottle is unopened — up to 3 years. When opened, it should be consumed within 18 months.
Best Substitute for Less Sodium and Gluten: Liquid Aminos
Liquid aminos is a great substitute for many foods like nutritional yeast and soy sauce. It is versatile because of its high protein, sodium and gluten-free content. Liquid aminos is suitable for almost any dish but is perfect for recipes like pad thai, noodles, and kimchi.
Because liquid aminos is created by treating soybeans with hydrochloric acid, it is also suitable for vegetarians and vegans. It provides most of the nutritional benefits of fish sauce, and then some. You can find liquid aminos in most grocery stores where fish sauce is sold. It is commonly sold as “Bragg liquid aminos”.
Best Substitute for a Sweeter Taste: Oyster Sauce
Oyster sauce is also made from seafood like fish sauce. But instead of the umami flavor, this sauce has a caramel-like sweetness. It also has the umami flavor, being composed of soy sauce. Oyster sauce has a syrup-like texture, and is excellent for recipes like pad thai, rice, and kimchi.
You can also add oyster sauce to other sauces for even more flavor. When cooking with oyster sauce, the same amount of fish sauce is often sufficient. Oyster sauce can be found in most grocery stores under the Asian cuisine aisle. The sauce can last up to six months after opening, provided it is refrigerated.
Best Substitute for Vegans: Vegan Fish Sauce
Vegan fish sauce is the perfect substitute for fish sauce if you’re a vegetarian, vegan, or have a fish allergy. It has the closest taste of all the substitutes on this list and has similar nutritional benefits. You can even use it for the same recipes. Vegan fish sauce is made from shiitake mushrooms, liquid aminos, and soy sauce.
You can use the same quantity of vegan fish sauce as regular fish sauce. It can be found at most grocery stores, and can even be made at home with the right ingredients. The sauce can last up to 30 days with refrigeration.
Best Substitute for Similar Nutrients: Seaweed
If you want the exact nutrients from fish sauce, seaweed is an excellent substitute. It is high in glutamate and amino acids. Seaweed also has a rich umami flavor and is a staple of several Japanese and Korean dishes.
There are different types of seaweed, and they have slightly different benefits. Wakame seaweed has a toned-down umami flavor, which contrasts with kombu seaweed that’s rich in sodium.