a collage showing a bottle of fish sauce surrounded by a pineapple, black beans, and mushrooms, which are used for making vegan fish sauce
Collage by Cathryn Virginia | Photos via Getty

How Cooks Create the Funky Taste of Fish Sauce, Without Any Fish

Fermented seafood is the backbone of many Southeast Asian cuisines, but vegan cooks find workarounds with black beans, pineapples, and more.
Bettina Makalintal
Brooklyn, US
March 2, 2021, 4:30pm

Customers ask her the question all the time: “They're like, Are you sure this fish sauce is vegan?” said Thuy Pham, a hair stylist-turned-cook and owner of Portland, Oregon-based Mama Dút. At her vegan Vietnamese deli, this sauce forms the dressing on vermicelli bowls; caramelized, it glazes sticky soy-based wings; and bottles of it are available for locals to cook with at home. It's fish sauce without the fish—not that you'd guess, she said. 

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The process of making fish sauce—the kind that’s true to its name—is straightforward: The centuries-old practice involves mixing salt and fish, then letting it ferment through sun and time. The oceanic brown liquid is known by many names including nam pla in Thailand, patis in the Philippines, nước mắm in Vietnam, and garum in Ancient Rome. In many cuisines, the solids are used as fish paste, also a pungent addition to any dish. Fermented seafood products like these form the backbone of many cuisines, especially across Southeast Asia. But what happens when you can’t or don’t eat seafood?

When it comes to vegan and vegetarian cooking, recipe developers offer many opinions on how to emulate fish sauce, some more successful than others. America's Test Kitchen recommends mixing salt, soy sauce, dried shiitake mushrooms, and water, or simply swap fish sauce for soy sauce, one-to-one, says Healthline. Those options will no doubt add savoriness, but there's more to fish sauce than that. 

Give a bottle a long sniff and past the sharp first inhale are more complex notes: fishy but often tailed by a toasted, even sweet finish. To truly approximate fermented seafood is to understand the layers of flavor that build to form the source material. Across the animal-free spectrum, home cooks and chefs have gotten creative as they deconstruct and recreate the magic of fermented fish. 

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Just as its scent has more than one note, fish sauce tastes complex. “The salt is there,” said Cuong Pham, the CEO and founder of the fish sauce company Red Boat. “When [you] first taste it, it hits you. But as you [try] our fish sauce, [you] will notice the sweetness at the end: the savory sweetness that would linger after the salt.” Red Boat makes its fish sauce on the Vietnamese island of Phú Quốc, and Cuong attributes its multi-note taste to the high protein level of the black anchovies the company sources from the surrounding Gulf of Thailand; for even more flavor, Red Boat also sells fish sauces aged in bourbon and maple barrels.

Compare fish sauces, just as taste testers at Our Daily Brine once did, and it's clear that they vary across brands, prices, and protein levels, which are indicated by the degrees of nitrogen present in a given fish sauce. Of Red Boat 40°N, these tasters concluded: “an oolong tea aroma,” and “fish, but not fishy.” Of New Town 60°N: “tastes like caramel,” and “umami for days.” If you want to approximate fish sauce, you have to use more than mushroom and soy. 

“I think for me, because I grew up eating the cuisine—and the flavor profile of fish sauce is so deeply embedded in my body from eating it so long as a child—it was a fairly simple task to replicate that same flavor profile,” said Thuy. To make her sauce, she simmers seaweed, mushrooms, and salt for the obvious oomph of umami. Then, Thuy cooks down fresh, ripe pineapple to add the sweetness that hits the back of the tongue, and adds caramelized sugar to give it the right hue of brown. 

If you don’t want to cook your own, specialty producers sell similar alternatives. Thai Taste’s “vegetarian fish sauce” is simple: water, salt, sugar, seaweed extract, yeast extract, and vinegar. Sold at Whole Foods and Walmart, Ocean’s Halo makes a “vegan fish soy-free sauce” with blackstrap molasses, apple cider vinegar, dried kelp, “organic natural flavor,” fruit and vegetable juice, and mushroom powder. 

“Especially if you're trying to replicate some sort of animal product, I think it's important to recognize all the various layers and flavors that go into creating that one taste that you get,” Thuy said. Recreation can, at times, be reductive—like the suggestions to use only mushroom liquid or soy to replace fish sauce. “Most things, it's not just flat salty or savory; it's got a little bit of everything to build that depth.” Whether it’s mushroom powder, fermented soybeans, or fermented tofu, umami-rich ingredients are essential to “deepen the flavor profile or mimic the salinity and savory quality of fish sauce,” Cameron Stauch wrote in the 2018 cookbook Vegetarian Viet Nam.

Understanding how to adapt fish sauce was easier than Thuy thought. “When I talked to Vietnamese grandmas who are Buddhists and I asked them what they do for fish sauce, there's all different variations,” she said. Though the development of Vietnam caused meat consumption to rise beginning in the late 80s and despite its cuisine’s association with fish sauce, Vietnam has a rich history of vegetarian and vegan food. Over 2000 years, the temple cuisine of the country’s Mahayana Buddhist tradition has honed plant-based versions of fish sauce, chicken wings, pork belly, and seafood, as the San Francisco Chronicle’s Soleil Ho has written. Going vegetarian and later vegan has helped Thuy understand the parts of Vietnamese cuisine that are less explored in the United States. “It’s just something that's not marketed, but it's been around for so long,” she said.

From the dried Indonesian terasi to Malay belacan to Filipino bagoong and more, fermented seafood pastes add complexity to curries, sauces, stews, and sambals across Southeast Asia, but once again pose a problem for people cooking animal-free. 

When restaurateur Ravi DeRossi approached him with the idea of doing vegan Filipino food, chef Raj Abat thought, “No, I’m not doing that,” he said. Now the executive chef of New York City’s plant-based Filipino restaurant Saramsam, Abat—who is not vegan himself—was initially apprehensive. The food he'd grown up on in Ilocos, a northern province of the Philippines, often included fish and pork, and it relied heavily on bagoong. Salty and sharp in flavor, bagoong can be shrimp-based, though Ilocano cooking often uses a fish-based version, which Abat watched his grandparents ferment at home as a child. To recreate the Ilocano cuisine he knew, Abat had to nail the vegan bagoong. 

“My first thought was: It has to look dark and black, and it has to smell really, really bad,” he said. “Fermentation does that. It makes everything smell really funky, but when you taste it, it's so delicious.” He immediately thought of black beans: the kind you might use for Mexican cooking. (Many Asian cuisines often use a different type of black beans: soybeans inoculated with mold, salted, and cured.) After soaking dried beans overnight and boiling them, Abat cooks the beans with garlic, ginger, and shallots—the trinity of Ilocano cooking—then adds chilies and salt and allows the mixture to ferment for two weeks. 

“If you had your eyes closed and I had you smell it and taste it, you would be like, ‘This is bagoong,’” Abat said. Other vegan Filipino chefs rely on salted black soybeans with vegan fish sauce and mushrooms for deeper flavor, or minced tofu with nori and other flavorings. With this vegan bagoong, Abat doesn’t have to compromise on the flavors of Ilocano cooking. He can cook the savory vegetable dish pinakbet or he can use it as condiment alongside fresh tomatoes, and in doing so, he can bring the Ilocano cuisine he grew up on to new audiences in New York City. 

For Thuy, exploring vegan Vietnamese food hasn’t just helped her understand her culture’s history, but it’s also been a way to make connections with Portland’s Vietnamese community, especially younger people who want a vegan take on their family’s foods. Despite the pandemic, Mama Dút has taken off: It’s gone from a pandemic project on Instagram Live, to a pop-up, to a brick-and-mortar, all since April 2020. “I hope that my platform, if it does anything, can show people that even in the darkest times, you can make dreams come true,” she said.