Published on November 13, 2019

As someone who is very forgetful, I frequently realize that I don’t have all the ingredients I need when I’m already halfway through cooking. This was the case one fateful night when I was in the middle of preparing a Bolognese sauce only to discover that I didn’t have the pancetta that the recipe called for. This was bad—without the boost of umami that pancetta (or another cured pork, like bacon or guanciale) provides, the whole thing just wouldn’t have the mouthwatering effect I was craving.

In a moment of panic, I took a look through my fridge for a substitute that could deliver that same umami kick and ultimately decided that fish sauce was the best option I had. I didn’t normally add this ingredient to my tomato-based sauces—at the time, I mainly used it in the few Thai recipes in my rotation. But the Bolognese was already in progress and I knew that fish sauce was packed with umami, so I added a couple tablespoons and hoped for the best. 

To my surprise, my in-a-pinch solution ended up resulting in the best Bolognese I ever made. According to chef and recent Chopped champion Kathy Fang, that shouldn’t have come as a surprise at all. “Fish sauce is like natural MSG,” she says. “It gives whatever dish you’re making a big boost of umami and flavor.” Those dishes include tomato-based sauces, which she frequently spikes with a few dashes of fish sauce. “I love how it adds depth and makes pasta sauce even more delicious, especially if the sauce doesn’t have any meat in it,” she notes.

Beyond Bolognese, there are tons of other ways to work a bit of fish sauce into your food. Anytime a dish you’re cooking needs a bit of umami, consider this your secret ingredient.

Use It When You Need More Flavor
Fang loves to add just a few dashes to anything that’s underseasoned, whether that be roast chicken or chicken noodle soup. Rather than making the dish fishy, it’ll accentuate its other flavors. 

Use a Lot If You Want a Seafood Taste
With fish sauce, a little goes a long way, so you’ll get that fishy flavor even if you don’t use a ton. Often a tablespoon or two is enough to get the job done. 

Use Whichever Fish Sauce You Have on Hand
There are many, many different varieties of fish sauce, and while they all taste slightly different on their own, they’ll do more or less the same thing to your food—find your favorite but don’t stress about it too much!

See more food stories:
I Use These Trader Joe’s Sauces on Literally Everything
This Ingredient Makes All of My Pasta Dishes Better
Two Clever Ways to Use Up Leftover Bread, From Paris’s Most Famous Bakery

Discussion