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A Fish Sauce With All of the Flavor & None of the Fish

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I remember the first time a friend told me about Tú Lan, a hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant that was a favorite of Julia Child. It was in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, and you had to walk past the stench of bodily fluids and climb over a drunken body or two in the doorway to get in.

Vietnamese food was just becoming discovered in the early nineties, and was new to me as well. I was immediately smitten with the heady aromas and freshness of the fragrant cuisine, and set out on a quest to find every Vietnamese joint in town.

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Vietnamese rice noodle salad
Vietnamese rice noodle salad Photo by James Ransom

What I didn’t know at the time was that Vietnamese food, like Thai, contained fermented fish sauce, and, as a vegan, I was shocked when a friend enlightened me. Not wanting to believe him, I returned to Tú Lan to order my favorite dishes sans fish sauce. Unfortunately, the dishes arrived still tasty but lacking that special something that had taken them over the top on my previous visits.

Alas, what was I to do? Well, the answer was obvious: Create my own, of course! But how to do that when I had never actually tasted fish sauce except unwittingly in a dish?

I closed my eyes and imagined that Missing Flavor: savory, salty, full of umami, a bit tangy from fermentation, and of course, fishy.

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Wakame, second from left, towards the bottom
Wakame, second from left, towards the bottom Photo by Bobbi Lin

Flavors of the sea are easy to replicate: Simply reach to plants that grow there, meaning sea vegetables; I’d done that many times before to create convincing chowders, bouillabaisse, and other traditional seafood dishes. So wakame became my source for sea essence. Saltiness was also easy, as I reached out for my favorite Japanese soy sauce, and the tanginess came from vinegar.

The resulting sauce was tasty, but lacking a bit of depth. It was the fermented flavor that it needed, and I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to get that.

Wakame powder, foreground, and fermented tofu, at right
Wakame powder, foreground, and fermented tofu, at right Photo by James Ransom

Then I remembered fermented tofu (a.k.a. fermented bean curd), a stinky concoction of slightly slimy, buttery squares of tofu found in jars at Asian grocery stores. A condiment that can be a bit strong on its own, if not plain unappetizing for most Western tastes, fermented tofu is something that can provide that hidden boost and umami to many dishes.

Tastes good on almost everything
Tastes good on almost everything Photo by James Ransom

As it turned out, it did give that much needed punch to my vegan adaptation, transforming it into a convincing fish sauce that would come to play a versatile role in my kitchen in everything from stir-fried vegetables to salad dressings to anything Asian or fusion.

And hey, why not carry a small bottle of it when you visit a Vietnamese or Thai restaurant and add it at your table to a dish made sans real fish sauce?

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Vegan Fish Sauce

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Makes 1 cup

For the fish sauce:

  • 3/4 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons organic sugar
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce or Bragg’s Liquid Aminos
  • 1 tablespoon distilled vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons liquid from a jar of fermented tofu
  • 1 teaspoon wakame powder (recipe below)
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt

For the wakame powder:

  • 1 cup dried wakame

To make the wakame powder, put the wakame in a blender and cover tightly. Process until it is completely pulverized. Wait a second for the wakame dust to settle before removing the lid, or you’ll lose some of it as it disperses into the air. Store in a covered jar at room temperature.

Once you have the wakame powder, combine all of the ingredients in a jar and mix or shake well. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 months. Shake well each time before using to redistribute the wakame.

Do you have a go-to fish sauce replacement? Tell us in the comments!

Tags: small batch, vegan, fish sauce, vegan fish sauce, homemade, homemade pantry