An alternative to fish sauce inspired by tradition

Fish sauce is a staple, and in some cases, the backbone of many Southeast and East Asian cuisines. Traditionally made by fermenting fish for months with salt, then pressing out the liquid. From pho to pad thai to kimchi, the many variants of this salty, pungent sauce offers a different taste profile than soy sauce.

This was a challenging recipe to come up with, simply because 1) I’ve never purposely tasted fish sauce in it’s raw form, and 2) in edible plants there aren’t a lot of ingredients that can emulate a strong fish flavour. Thus my goal is not to imitate but to create a sauce that’s versatile with a taste of the ocean and good enough to enliven dishes without additional seasonings. So, this recipe makes a fishy-tasting sauce, but don’t expect it to taste exactly like fish sauce! Luckily, inspiration came from traditional ingredients used in local dishes, thus I could keep the recipe relevant to our culture and as simple as possible. The perceived taste may vary from person to person. To me, this is less salty than soy sauce, has a richer umami and does not easily overpower a dish.

There are 2 main ingredients: something fermented for the pungency and umami, and something from the sea for the briny ocean flavour.

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Our ‘something fermented’ will be the vegan version of belacan, the pungent, fermented shrimp paste that has similar importance as fish sauce in Southeast Asian cuisines. In Singapore, there are 2 types of vegan belacan (fermented from soy) available cheaply at vegetarian grocery shops. Powder type has less pungency and a slight sweetish aftertaste, while the ball-shaped paste has a much stronger smell with a soy aftertaste. It’s up to your preference so do experiment! I prefer powder, because the ball paste’s quality seem inconsistent.

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Next, something from the sea will be 2 types of dried seaweed (edible algae, not something to be smoked) – wakame and kelp. Seaweed is valued in East Asian cooking for its briny umami and health benefits. Both expand in size and release a good ocean flavour when cooked, and can be bought at local dried goods shops and supermarkets.

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You’ll need:

20g dried wakame
40g dried kelp (a.k.a kombu)
5 tsp vegan belacan powder or 20g belacan paste
1 cup quality light soy sauce (use gluten-free ones if preferred)

Rinse both seaweeds in water (do not soak). Place them in a large pot and add enough water to cover them completely. Stir in belacan powder/paste. (If using paste, toast it over heat for 2 mins then crumble into pot.) Place pot over high heat, bring to a boil and simmer for 20mins. Turn off heat, drain out seaweed and pour in soy sauce. Put back on heat, bring to a boil again and simmer on low heat till mixture is reduced to a very salty liquid (about 20-30mins). Off heat, place seaweed back into pot with the mixture and let it sit covered overnight at room temperature. Next day, wearing gloves, squeeze out the absorbed liquid from seaweed, pour sauce through a fine sieve into a clean bottle.


 

Notes:
1) The last step is crucial to impart more ocean flavour to the sauce, if
you’re pressed for time you can skip it, it’ll be weaker tasting though.
2) There’s another vegan fish sauce recipe with more ingredients here (with garlic). I tried it, replacing miso with belacan. Delish too, although with a weaker ocean taste. I’d encourage you to experiment and maybe even combine 2 recipes together!
3) If belacan isn’t available, a strong red miso might work. But it won’t have that pungency unique to belacan.
4) Never throw away the cooked seaweed! Use it again stir-fries, fried rice/noodles and soup-based dishes. It will be salty with a belacan smell – may not be the best salad ingredient!

So, how to use this strong smelling liquid?

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Simply use it when you’re bored of soy sauce, or replace fish sauce when a recipe calls for it, or as a dip with other garnishes. My favourites are in soups, like this one-pot mung bean noodle soup boiled in mushroom stock with a slight pour of fish-y sauce, topped with greens, enoki mushroom, fried leek and garlic tempeh crumbles. I’ve also enjoyed greens steamed in a small puddle of it or even simply drizzled onto rice. Immensely versatile – you define the limits of its use!

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