Fish Sauce, the amber-colored umami Uzzi of Southeast Asian cuisine. We know the magic it holds, but which brand is the best? Is the Vietnamese nuoc mam really superior to Thailand’s nam pla? We tasted 13 different brands of fish sauce, all commercially available in the States. The best was clear and the loser stank.
Fish Sauce, A Primer
Fish sauce is simple: Fish (usually anchovies) mixed with sea salt and fermented for a long period. The resulting liquid, fish sauce. It’s the backbone of Eastern Asian cuisine. The Thai call it nam pla, the Vietnamese, nuoc mam. In the Philippines it’s patis, Korea, aek jeot, and so on. According to Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking, fish fermentation “arose several thousand years ago in the freshwaters of Southwest China and the Mekong River region. It then spread to coastal deltas and was applied to ocean fish.” McGee goes on to cite the origin of Asian fish sauces as garum, an ancient Roman sauce that “consists of the guts of fish and other parts that would otherwise be considered refuse, so the garum is really the liquor from putrefaction.”, according to the Roman historian, Pliny. It was said that the best garum was made only from mackerel and came from Roman outposts in Spain. As a liquid, it’s value was comparable to the finest perfumes. Fish sauce is believed to be the precursor to soy sauce. McGee states that first foods fermented by the Chinese, fish and meats, were eventually replaced by soy beans in the 2nd century BCE.
The Baseline for Best
The goal of this tasting was to find the brand which possessed the best flavor. Our basis for the “best” tasting fish sauce was as follows:
- It should taste pure, with fish and sea salt being the only perceivable ingredients
- Fish should be the dominate flavor, with salt to follow
- It should taste of fish and the ocean, but not be “fishy” or off-putting
- It should not taste sweetened; if there is perceivable sweetness it should taste natural and be on the finish
While we considered and documented aroma, it did not factor into our scoring of taste. Regardless, we found that in all cases those brands with an off-putting aroma shared the same taste.
A Collaboration with Three Thousand Acre Kitchen
To do so I recruited my good friend, and fellow food blogger, Jaime Vasquez (pronounced high-may) of Three Thousand Acre Kitchen. We had a full day of taste testing followed by a night of grilled foods incorporating fish sauce. One of the highlights of that dinner was Jaime’s Vietnamese-style Grilled Pork Balls (follow the link for the recipe) sauced with the Vietnamese dipping sauce, Nước chấm.
The Brands Tasted
|Red Boat 40°N|
|Red Boat 50°N|
|New Town 60°N|
|Shrimp and Crab|
|Viet Huong Flying Lion|
|Huong Vi Viet|
- All brands were tasted blind
- 50mL of sauce was poured into identical 100 mL white ramekins, numbered 1 to 13
- Flavor was scored on a 1 to 5 scale; 1 being worst and 5 being best
- Perceived sodium level was recorded as Low, Medium or High
- Color and aroma were observed and recorded
- Rice crackers, water and coffee bean (aroma) were used between each sampling to cleanse the palette
- Samples were tasted plain
- Samples that scored above 3 stars were re-tasted plain, with warm rice and as a paste with hard-boiled eggs
- The three highest scoring sauces were re-tasted plain for a final, closer comparison
Red Boat 40°N — Phu Quoc, Vietnam — $6.95 (500 mL)
Red Boat 40°N just happened to be toward the end of all the different sauces we tasted (blind). We both immediately agreed that this was easily the best so far. The taste is fish and salt, with a slightly sweet finish. It was remarked “Now this is what fish sauce should taste like.” There’s currently a lot of buzz around Red Boat. I’ll admit, I was skeptical. In the end Red Boat was the clear winner.
Red Boat was one of the first brands I’ve known to declare Degrees N. (40°N, 50°N, etc.). This is a standard to measure the number of grams of nitrogen per liter of fish sauce, which directly relates to the protein level. According to Red Boat “The highest quality fish sauces are greater than 30°N, with the flavor becoming more rich and complex with larger N designation.”
Agreed we both “love this”, “Simple, not complex. Just straight forward”, “an oolong tea aroma”, “fish, but not fishy”, “This smells pure”, “like seared fish”, “I’m on the beach”, “fish is the clear leader here”, “caramelized onions”, “salt is at the front, but fish quickly follows”, “a slightly sweet finish, but natural, not added”, “This is easily the best to far”, “I just want to keep tasting this”.
- Salt Level: Medium-High
- Ingredients: Anchovy, Sea Salt
- Protein: 4g Protein per 1 Tbsp
Red Boat 50°N — Phu Quoc, Vietnam — $8.00 (80 mL)
Red Boat 50°N is Red Boat’s premium brand, it’s what they refer to as their “Phamily Reserve.” It’s excellent, no doubt. But the flavor difference between 50°N and 40°N is minimal. When comparing the high-scoring finalists against each other, it was remarked that the most noticeable difference was that 50°N (identified later) was “a bit saltier”. It was easy to taste that these two were the same brand. While price seems to vary greatly, the 50°N is easily 10x the cost of 40°N. Is it worth that difference in price? We didn’t think so.
“Tastes pure and rich”, “mineral flavors”, “this reminds me of excellent capers”, “clearly fish and salt”, “there’s a subtle sweet finish to this”, “love this”, “Smells really pure”, “fresh fish, but not fishy; briny”, “maybe a tiny bit of smoke?”
- Salt Level: Medium-High
- Ingredients: Anchovy, Sea Salt
- Protein: 4g Protein per 1 Tbsp
New Town 60°N — Vietnam — $5.95 (500 mL)
This brand is a mystery. We found it on the shelf of our local Vietnamese super market. It bears the 60°N designation, which is indicative of its nitrogen (protein) level. Is that legitimate? Hard to say. It seems almost all the fish sauce on the market bear claims like “From Phu Quoc” that’s nothing more than deceptive marketing intended to capitalize on the history of high-quality fish sauce from Vietnam’s Phu Quoc island. New Town’s origin is Vietnam; the best fish sauce is arguably from Vietnam. We could not find out anything about the manufacturer or importer. In fact, we couldn’t even find reference to the listed import company in California’s corporation commission. That said, this is really good. A very close second to Red Boat. We felt the umami was most pronounced in this sauce; it had the most round mouth feel. If you can find it, pick it up.
“The most assertive so far”, “very good flavor”, “rich and true”, “a slight acidity to it”, “a round mouth feel”, “almost tastes like it has fish oil”, “tastes like caramel”, “umami for days”, “good, fish, salt, simple”
- Salt Level: Medium
- Ingredients: Fish, Salt, Water
- Protein: 1g Protein per 1 Tbsp
Tiparos — Thailand — $1.49 (725 mL)
At $1.49, Tiparos is easily the best buy. And aside from the addition of sugar, this does not contain the fructose and hydrolysed B.S. that you’ll find in most of the brands we tasted. With water as the first ingredient, it confirms our “not a lot to this, but not bad” perception; it’s certainly no where near as pure as Red Boat. If using as a part of a recipe, such as in a soup where it’s not the feature, you could use more to make up for it’s “weakness.” It’s likely that you will find Tiparos, alongside the other major brands like Golden Boy and Three Crabs, at most any place fish sauce is sold. And if faced with that choice Tiparos is easily the best buy—and the better sauce.
“Not a lot to this, but not bad”, “there’s fish here, but it’s a little flat”, “salt seems the primary flavor, with fish hard to find”, “the flavor is good, it’s just a bit weak”
- Salt Level: High
- Ingredients: Water, Anchovy Extract, Salt, Sugar
- Protein: 2g Protein per 1 Tbsp
Recommended with Reservations
Shrimp & Crab — Thailand — $2.99 (725 mL)
The world of fish sauce is filled with small-scale importers trying to capitalize on the success of other major brand names. It would seem that Crab and Shrimp Brand is trying to do just that. Most would mistake this as Viet Huong’s Three Crab brand—I did—due to the intentional similarity in labels. Surprisingly though this scored high in our tasting. Especially surprising as our all of the other brands that contained additive ingredients scored low in our test. It does contain hydrolysed wheat protein, so that should be considered by those avoiding gluten.
“This smells a little flat; not bad, but not complex”, “salt is first, followed by fish”, “I really like this. It makes me want to taste it a few more times”, “salt is high, but flavor seems pure and even”, “certainly a sweet finish”, “most UMAMI of the bunch”, “I taste dried chinese plum”, “makes you pucker, but follows with a sweet finish”
Viet Huong Flying Lion — Hong Kong —$3.89 (750mL)
If we could give this a 3 ⅛ stars we would. It just barely creeps into the Recommended with Reservations category. Like the popular Three Crabs brand, Flying Lion is a brand manufactured by the Viet Huong company. They also manufacture 1 Crab, 2 Crab, and 5 Crab brands. But not 4 Crabs? While this is nowhere near as bad as Three Crabs or Squid, we could taste the additives. The flavor is acceptable, but not great. If our recommended brands were not available, Flying Lion would be adequate for dipping sauces, with Tiparos better suited for use as an ingredient.
“Very light smell; a bit of musty cardboard”, “not great, but OK”, “tastes a bit like paper”, “if the price is good on this, it could be acceptable”, “I don’t think this tastes pure”
Flying Horse — Thailand — $1.29 (750 mL)
Flying horses and lions, crabs and shrimp. It seems any animal is fair game for marketing fish sauce—except fish. Go figure. Despite the universal appeal of flying horses, this sauce lacks luster. That’s not to say it’s terrible. If forced to choose between Flying Horse and Flying Lion, I’d put my money on the horse. It’s nearly 1/3 the cost and is void of the additives in Flying Lion. The taste is a tossup, however.
“Barnyard aroma; earthy and a little poopy”, “fish not at front”, “onion and soy aromas”, “tastes a little metallic”, “searching for the fish”, “multiple fish, maybe even shellfish flavor”, “possible other ingredients”, mutually agreed this is “not pure”
MegaChef (30°N) — Thailand — $2.95 (700 mL)
MegaChef makes several different sauces with this being billed as their “Premium” offering for the US. While it is free of the hydrolysed proteins and “other” ingredients commonly found among the major brands, it does have added sugar and fructose. That makes for a cloying sweet sauce. It’s a shame, there seems to be the makings of a good fish sauce here, but the sugar just kills it.
“A light aroma, subtle”, “smells of the sea”, “tastes a little flat”, “salt first and very quickly sweet”, “sweetest of bunch”, “tastes a little fake”, “hard to find fish flavor”
Huong Vi Viet Brand — Vietnam — $2.95 (750 mL)
The color of Huong Vi Viet brand was significantly different from the other brands. It’s “pinkish” and “looks fake” were some of the remarks. Later upon inspecting the label, “caramel color”confirmed our suspicions. The only reason this scored higher than Golden Boy, Three Crabs or Squid brands, was that the smell and flavor were not horribly offensive.
“This looks pink and cloudy”, “doesn’t look right”, “smells like paper”, “tastes fake”, “It’s not horrible, but it’s not fish sauce”, “more like vegetables than fish”, “tastes like it has ‘other’ ingredients”
Golden Boy — Thailand — $2.49 (725 mL)
There are four major brands that are pervasive in the world of fish sauce: Tiparos, Three Crabs, Squid, and Golden Boy. Because these brands were so easily obtainable, it was important that they were included in our tasting. There’s not a lot to say about this. It just tastes gross. Not as gross as Three Crabs and Squid brands, mind you, but that’s little consolation.
“Smells like old musty paper”, this smell is off-putting”, “0ff tasting”, “flat, one-dimensional”, “taste bad, then just disappears”, “not good”
Three Crabs — Hong Kong/Thailand — $2.59 (300 mL)
When asked “What fish sauce would you recommend?” a majority of people will tell you Three Crabs—and a good lot of chefs will tell you Three Crabs, and for the life of me, I cannot tell you why. Maybe because it’s the least salty of the bunch? It’s certainly not as assertive as Golden Boy and Squid, but it simply tastes awful. We’ve also often heard it remarked that “I love fish sauce, but it just smells so terrible.” If a majority of people are basing their impression of fish sauce on Three Crabs, I can understand the sentiment. It smells terrible. One of us remarked “It smells like that stuff between your toes.” Fish sauce shouldn’t smell terrible, Red Boat and a few of the other brands tasted here proved that.
“Smells like that stuff between your toes”, “smells off, not good”, “smells like musty old books that have molded in an attic”, “bad and fishy taste”, “tastes fake, mass-produced”, “very sweet”, “tastes like paper”, “terrible and flat, this is just bad”
Squid — Thailand — $1.49 (750 mL)
It’s a tossup between which was worst: Three Crabs or Squid brand; we were divided on our interpretation. While Three Crabs easily smelled the worst, it’s possible that Squid tasted worst.
“Terrible”, “that same musty old paper smell”, “pungent and off”, “this does not taste good at all”, “tastes like it smells”, “fake, musty old newspapers”, “Ick”, “easily the worst yet”
A Whole Different League
Blis — Phu Quoc, Vietnam / United States — $17.95 (200 mL)
It was agreed that this should not be considered among our tasting as it’s a whole different animal. The flavor is something totally different.
Blis (I refuse to type “BLiS”) is a collaboration between Blis and Red Boat. They’ve simply taken Red Boat 40°N and aged it in charred barrels for 7 months. The result is pretty extraordinary. It’s rich, smoky and peaty—and when I say smoky, I mean smoke for days. Like drinking Laphroaig around a campfire while smoking a brisket. I’d use this like you would use Worcestershire sauce. I can see a barrel-aged fish sauce experiment of my own in the future.
Salt Level: Medium — Ingredients: Anchovy, Sea Salt — Protein: 3g Protein per 1 Tbsp
What We Learned
Good fish sauce should be fish and salt, nothing more. While it will smell like fish, it should not stink or smell foul. All of the brands we tasted that smelled off, tasted off. The color should be a dark amber. Our top 4 had nearly identical colors, while the lower scoring were often a pale tea color. It’s widely believed that the best fish sauce comes from Vietnam, and while our sampling is hardly enough to confirm conclusively, our top two do represent this sentiment. Quality fish sauce degrades with time. Much like wine, fish sauce is subject to oxidation. It’s best to refrigerate your fish sauce and use within a year of opening.
There are countless manufactures and importers of fish sauce. Many of the importers are small operations importing what they can get from different family and regional producers. It would be impossible to taste them all. We’ve tried to cover the major brands as well as some of smaller imports.
Next time you’re shopping I’d urge you to read the labels. Check the country of origin, it’s often not what’s represented in the design. But most importantly, check the ingredients. Ideally, you want: fish and salt.
You may be interested in this recipe: Nuoc Cham, Vietnamese Dipping Sauce