Asian fish sauce adds extra kick

July 17, 2009|By LYNNE ROSSETTO KASPER/Scripps Howard News Service

Dear Lynne,

Could you tell me why you use a funky-smelling Asian sauce in an Italian dressing? I manage one of the farmer's markets in Washington and did a demo based on your "do-it-yourself dressing kit." You recommend a Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce in oil and vinegar and other European dressings. What's the reasoning?

Alexandra in Washington

Dear Alexandra,

Ah, that fish sauce is the cook's cure-all, yet I understand your skepticism. Take a sniff of fish sauce and you're convinced you'll never let it pass your lips. Nothing matches the smell of old socks like this fermented, salt-fish concoction from Southeast Asia.

But magic lives in that bottle. Fish sauce, and a long list of other foods, contains umami, called the fifth taste. Consider it savory-ness. Magic is in what umami does for your food. With it other flavors open up, blossom and meld together. That's why knowing the umami trick is such a plus, especially for summer cooking, when you want a little effort to pay back big with a lot of good eating. The trick is a few drops of fish sauce in a dressing, a spoonful in a soup, a stew, a marinade or a rub, to make flavors better.


On the science side, umami is glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, also known as naturally occurring MSG, and it was first discovered in Japan in 1908.

Use some of these members of the umami league whenever you can: tomatoes (skin and seeds especially), ketchup, seaweed, kelp, anchovies, certain other fish and most shellfish, soy sauce, kimchee, sauerkraut, beef, pork, chicken, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, potatoes, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, soy beans, red wine, and green tea.

Here's one way to put umami to work for you. A little inexpensive this-and-that (as in a lot of vegetables and a little meat if any) stretches a long way when you serve them with lettuce cups for rolling, and a dipping sauce for spice. Besides, finger food always engages people and gets conversations going.

Any protein or favorite vegetable can be the main event in these rolls. They are a hybrid of the Southeast Asian Hmong people's favorite meat or fish salad called Larb (see the book "Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America," University of Minnesota Press, 2009) and my own imaginings.

In spite of the lists, this is an easy dish. If you'd like, do the pickle and dipping sauce days ahead. The Sweet-Sour Dipping Sauce with Tomato recipe makes extra because it keeps in the fridge for three weeks and becomes a dressing, a marinade , a dip, and even a cold soup base. You'll like having it around.


Serves 4 and halves or doubles easily.

  • Sweet-Tart Carrot/Onion Pickle:

    2 medium raw carrots, peeled and cut into thin strips 2-inches by 1/8 inch1 medium onion, cut into thin strips1 large clove garlic, minced1/4 cup sugar, or to taste1/3 cup water1/3 cup fresh lime juice or cider vinegarSalt to taste

    Mix everything together, taste for sweet-tart balance, and let marinate 30 minutes to three days in the refrigerator. When ready to serve, drain and mix with the chicken filling.

  • Sweet-Sour Dipping Sauce with Tomato:

    2 large garlic cloves, minced1 to 3 fresh serrano or jalapeo chilies, minced (seed to decrease heat -- for extreme heat, use tiny Thai chilies)1/8 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper1/2 cup Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce1/3 cup sugar, or more to taste1 whole large lime, peeled of all white skin and pureed with 1-1/2 cups water1/2 cup rich-tasting grape or small heirloom tomatoes, pureed

    In a glass jar with a screw top combine all ingredients, shaking to dissolve sugar. Taste for balance. Keep cold up to 3 weeks. To serve, set out in 4 individual little bowls, one for each diner.

  • Roll-Up Filling:

    3 cups cold cooked chicken, meat, fish, tempeh or vegetables, cut into 1/2-inch dice1 to 2 fresh serrano or jalapeo chilies, minced, or hot sauce to taste1/2 cup whole salted almonds, coarsely chopped1/3 tight-packed cup each fresh spearmint leaves and coriander leaves, tornSalt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

    Mix everything together, and tasting for seasoning. Keep cool.

  • Lettuce Cups and Herbs:

    1 large head Bibb or leaf lettuce, with leaves separated, washed and dried2 cups grape tomatoes, halved1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded and sliced into 2-inch sticks2 limes cut into wedges

    Arrange on a large platter. Set out the sauce and the chicken. Everyone spoons a little filling into the cups, adds tomato and cucumber, squeezes lime over the mix, rolls them up and dips into the sauce if desired.

    (Lynne Rossetto Kasper hosts "The Splendid Table," American Public Media's weekly national show for people who love to eat, and is the co-author of "The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper: Recipes, Stories, and Opinions." Ask questions and find Lynne, recipes and station listings at or (800) 537-5252.)

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