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!

Vegan Kaya

Kaya, a Southeast Asian coconut egg jam , is a breakfast staple on many Singaporeans’ dining tables. Before supermarkets, many households had their own kaya formula, often cooked over a charcoal stove for hours. Current vegan versions on the market use pumpkin or sweet potato as base texture – a creative reinvention, but nonetheless not the same as the traditional silky smooth, velvety kaya with rich coconut-y notes and sweet aroma of pandan. The following recipes covers both types of kaya popular in Singapore – Hainanese, which is richly caramel, and Nonya, which is refreshingly pandan. You can’t tell it’s not made from eggs! Both processes are similar so if you master one, the other will be a breeze! (Photos here show the making of Nonya kaya)

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The egg replacer might be sitting in you fridge now – silken tofu! Blended silken tofu is already used in many Western vegan recipes like quiche and creme brulee, where eggs give texture and bulk. Apparently its proteins coagulate under heat similar to eggs.

If you have a preferred recipe from grandma (lucky you!) feel free to use that. Just replace the eggs with equal volumes of blended tofu. The following recipes were adapted from Singapore Hawker Classics Unveiled book and rasamalaysia with sugar slightly reduced.

Hainanese Kaya
300g silken tofu (I used suitable for frying type)

200g sugar

50g raw sugar (to give brown colour)

100ml coconut cream

200ml coconut milk

2-4 knotted pandan leaves

¼ tsp salt (optional, helps to preserve)

Blend the silken tofu in a blender. Pour into a steel mixing bowl, whisk in coconut milk, coconut cream, salt and sugar. Place mixing bowl over a pot of boiling water simmering over low heat. Stir continuously for 15 min till mixture thickens slightly. Sieve into another bowl to remove lumps. Return to heat and add in pandan leaves. In another small pan, melt the raw sugar and add the caramel into the mixture. Cook for 20-30mins, stirring every 5 mins till mixture becomes slightly thinner than desired consistency (It hardens in fridge). Let cool, transfer into clean container.

Nonya Kaya

300g silken tofu

200g sugar

200ml coconut milk

8 pandan leaves cut into strips

¼ tsp salt

Blend the silken tofu and pour into steel mixing bowl. Blend pandan leaves with coconut milk and strain into the bowl. Add in sugar and salt. Place mixing bowl over a pot of boiling water simmering over low heat. Stir continuously for 15 -20 mins till mixture thickens slightly. Sieve into another bowl to remove lumps. Return to heat and cook for 20-30mins, stirring every 5 mins till mixture becomes slightly thinner than desired consistency (It hardens in fridge). Let cool, transfer into clean container.

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Notes: Traditional recipe uses mainly white sugar (SIS brand is vegan), you may experiment with all raw sugar or palm/coconut sugar for a richer coconut flavour. Ultimately, kaya, like most of our Southeast Asian foods, have no recipe set in stone. If an eggy hint is preferred, a pinch of black salt (kala namak) does the trick. Yes, you won’t miss foods you love after going vegan 🙂