Does Thai fish sauce taste fishy?

In this article, we will answer the following questions: Does Thai fish sauce taste fishy? What are the nutritional benefits of fish sauce? Is Thai fish sauce bad for you? Keep reading to find the answers. 

Does Thai fish sauce taste fishy?

Fish sauce is a liquid extracted from fish fermented with sea salt. It is produced from a fish and salt mixture which is kept in a concrete tank within a temperature range of 35–40°C for over 6 months. Fish sauce is an important cooking ingredient in Southeast and Eastern Asia. It is made from anchovies, other small fish, shrimp, or from the processing of aquatic by-products. Fish sauces have distinct and particular odors, mainly ammoniacal, meaty, and cheesy. Sweet, meaty, and cheesy odors prevail in Thai fish sauce, with salty and anchovy like odors also noticed (1).

Thai fish sauce is salty, without a fishy aftertaste, with a sweet finish. It’s easy to find in supermarkets, as is the Thai Kitchen.  

The high consumption of fish sauce in Thailand may contribute to the high levels of people suffering from hypertension in the Country. About 25% of Thai people have hypertension. The overall hypertension prevalence amongThai adults increased from 21% in 2003 to 25% in 2014 (6).

Fish Sauce or Nam Pla is the Thai version of a sauce made in different Southeast Asia; for example, Vietnamese fish sauce is known as Nuoc Nam. These dressings follow the line of one of the oldest spices made from fermented fish, garum.

Fish sauce or Nam Pla is also known as the essence of anchovies (since it is the fish with which it is mainly made in Thailand); one of its main properties is to salt the culinary preparations in which it is incorporated, something similar to the use of soy sauce.

In fact, in some Asian kitchens, they prefer fish sauce in the absence of good soybean crops to make their sauce. Both sauces also provide the so-called fifth flavor, umami.

This sauce type is obtained from some fish species, mollusks, and shellfish, both raw and dried; a paste is made with them and mixed with salt, approximately between 10 and 30%. The fish sauce requires around 6-24 months of fermentation, but before, this preparation produces a fish paste used in cooking approximately in a month.

 This condiment surprisingly comes from Europe! During ancient Rome, fish sauce was called garum. Archaeologists have even found traces of the first factories dating back to the 4th century BC. This primitive sauce is generally made from whole fish, blood, or offal. As with wine, another fermented liquid, its quality can vary considerably.

Does fish sauce taste fishy? 

No, the fish sauce does not taste fishy. Fish sauce is a versatile blend of rich and sharp flavors that range from sweet, salty, savory and fish-like. Thus, it does not have a fishy after-taste and tastes very much like soy sauce or oyster sauce.

However, the taste perception may vary, depending on the product origin, brand and composition (fish and shellfish used, fermentation time, seasonings) and person. In a study, the taste perceptions of fish sauce of various origins were identified with more or less intensity and included caramel, fermented, fishy, rancid, roasted, and musty; and tastes: meaty, sour, umami, salty, sweet, and bitter. Aftertastes were sweet, salty, bitter, caramelized, and fishy (1).

The flavor of Thai fish sauce

We find several basic ingredients in Asian cuisine. The fish sauce stands out for its concentrate of umami, one of the tongue’s 5 flavors. For a few months or several years, anchovies were covered with the salt ferment in tanks. The salt helps the fish to process, and the mixture is pressed to extract the brine. Result: a very unique condiment!

In Southeast Asian cuisine, fish sauce is an everyday seasoning to replace salt. It is a key ingredient in soups, dressings, and stir-fries. In Vietnam, it is called nuoc-mam, while in Thailand, it is called nam pla. See how to make the fish sauce at home!

Many are speculating on how this sauce arrived in Asia. Regardless, the famous Vietnamese brand Phu Quoc is the first fish sauce in the world to benefit from a controlled designation of origin from the European Union. It is also one of the most counterfeit recipes because of its unique flavor.

Nutritional benefits of fish sauce 

These products have a high concentration of nucleic acids, free amino acids, and peptides responsible for the various aroma and nutritional benefits.

Fish and fish products not only provide protein, but in addition provide polyunsaturated fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals that are important in human nutrition. Fermentation is one of the oldest techniques in food preservation, as it not only extends the shelf life but also enhances the flavor and nutritional quality of the product (2).

In addition to these components, it has been appreciated that one of the elements of most significant interest is its high concentration of natural antioxidants. The oxidation of lipids is one of the biggest concerns in the food and health sector. For the first, by inducing the development of bad smells and unpleasant tastes, the toxic products that the oxidation reactions accumulate for the second.

Antioxidants are used to facilitate the preservation of food, delaying discoloration, and alteration. Therefore, antioxidants are increasingly used as additives that allow, together with other substances, to increase the shelf life of fatty foods. However, these synthetic antioxidants are added under specific regulations that prevent massive and uncontrolled use (4).

However, if foods rich in natural antioxidants are used as ingredients in many dishes, similar effects could be obtained, depending on the concentration of active molecules during commercial life.

In the fish sauce, and especially in those made from mussels, an antioxidant peptide has been detected with a great capacity to achieve the conservation of quality fat.

Antioxidant capacity –  To determine this type of product’s antioxidant capacity, different techniques have been tested. Among them, the detection of the alteration of polyunsaturated fatty acids is especially interesting. The main problem with fat is that the more unsaturated, the more unstable it is, facilitating the loss of nutritional power if oxidation is allowed.

Curiously, the mussel sauce shows a high protective capacity, although this is dependent on the maturation time. The maximum antioxidant activity is appreciated when the maturation time is six months. Under these conditions, the mussel sauce shows an antioxidant activity estimated at 54.1% (3).

Other FAQs about Sauces which you may be interested in.

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Negative effects of fish sauce

As has been pointed out, these types of sauces are very rich in histidine, an amino acid that may have a specific antioxidant capacity, but which is used by multiple microorganisms to form histamine, a substance with the ability to trigger outbreaks of food poisoning if it accumulates in the foods. The histidine concentration in fish sauce depends on the fish or sea product species used to produce fish sauce (2,3).

The formation is due to the action of microorganisms, this being a non-sterilized product.  During the fermentation, salt tolerant bacteria act and change the nutritional properties, the color and consistency of the sauce. Although the high amount of salt in the product acts as a preservative, fish sauce is pasteurized. Pasteurization is a thermal treatment that reduces the amount of microorganisms in food products (5).

If we also consider that the maturation period is six months or longer, it would be possible that various concentrations of histamine accumulate. To prevent this, it is necessary to keep it under refrigeration conditions and, as far as possible, to ensure its sterilization by preserving it.

Another problem to consider is the high concentration of salt. With levels above 20%, they imply that a high consumption would not be compatible with a healthy diet, which would mean reviewing its composition or consuming it.

The conclusion

Thai fish sauce does not taste fishy, despite its odor. Thai fish sauce tastes salty with a sweet finish. 

This sauce type is obtained from some fish species, mollusks, and shellfish, both raw and dried; a paste is made with them and mixed with salt, approximately between 10 and 30% of it. The fish sauce requires around 24 months of fermentation, but before, this preparation produces a fish paste used in cooking approximately in a month.

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  1. Yimdee, Thanakorn, and Xi-Chang Wang. Comparison of odor and taste of commercial brand fish sauces from east and south east Asian countries. Int J Food Prop, 2016, 19, 873-896. 
  2. Shivanne Gowda, Siddegowda Gopalapura, Bhaskar Narayan, and Shubha Gopal. Bacteriological properties and health-related biochemical components of fermented fish sauce: An overview. Food Rev Int, 2016 32, 203-229.
  3. Jung, Won-Kyo, Niranjan Rajapakse, and Se-Kwon Kim. Antioxidative activity of a low molecular weight peptide derived from the sauce of fermented blue mussel, Mytilus edulis. Euro Food Res Technol, 2005, 220, 535-539.  
  4. Shahidi, Fereidoon, and Ying Zhong. Antioxidants: regulatory status. Bailey’s industrial oil and fat products, 2005, 491-512.
  5. Hirunsorn, Pimnibha, and Mutiara Nur Isnainia. Assessment of Health Risks to People in Northeastern Thailand from the Intake of Sodium and Synthetic Preservatives Contained in Traditional Thai Fermented Fish Sauce (Nam-Pla-Ra) and Their Pathogenic Prevalence. Trend Sci, 2022, 19, 6308-6308.
  6. Rusmevichientong, Pimbucha, et al. Dietary Salt-Related Determinants of Hypertension in Rural Northern Thailand. Int J Environ Res Public Health, 2021,18.