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Friday, July 5, 2013

Fish Sauce and Two Easy Southeast Asian Salads

Burmese Melon Salad with Sesame-Ginger Vinaigrette--and fish sauce!

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Fish Sauce and Two Easy Southeast Asian Salads
By Victoria Challancin

Stinky?  It's true. In your face?  Definitely.  Indispensable?  Absolutely.  Maloderous, but essential to Southeast Asian cooking, fish sauce is an ingredient we all, vegetarians excepted, need to learn to love. Often served in its pure form as a dipping sauce enhanced with chiles, garlic, and/or herbs, it can also be used in smaller amounts to provide a soupçon of flavor to a wide variety of dishes, as in the fruit salad below.  When used judiciously in this way, it seems to practically disappear in a prepared dish, yet managing to impart a je ne sais quoi touch of authenticity that makes certain dishes positively sing.

Fish Sauce

Most Asian fish sauces or extracts are made from raw fish or dried fish, mainly from a single species.  Others are produced from a melange of whole fish and even shellfish--basically whatever is hauled up in the net.  Still others are prepared from only the blood or viscera of fish.  Typically, fish sauces contain only fish and salt, but a few add herbs and spices as well.  The brief fermentation process used to make them yields a pronounced fishy, salty taste.  If fermented for a longer time, the final product has a rich, nutty flavor.

In Southeast Asia, fish sauce is often made from anchovies, salt, and water, which are placed in wooden boxes to ferment.  Slow pressing of the mixture yields a salty, fishy liquid beloved all over the region.  Though often used as a cooking sauce, many table condiments for dipping can also be found made up of fish sauce.

While we often associate fish sauces with Asia, and rightly so, the ancient Greeks made a somewhat less salty fish sauce as early as 4th- and 3rd- century BC.  And we know that the fish sauce called garum, a precursor of modern Worcestershire sauce,  was absolutely ubiqutous in the cooking of Classical Rome.
Southeast Asian Fish Sauces
Versions of fish-based sauces abound in Asia, though it is considered a staple specifically in the cuisines of Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia:

  • nuoc mam is popular in Vietnam where it often used a light, salty-sweet or -sour condiment dipping sauce; mam is another popular food item which is made like fish sauce, except that both the fish and the liquid extract are used after a shorter fermentation period
  • Similar condiments called nam pla and ngan bya yyay are found in Thailand and Burma
  • In Lao/Isan, a chunkier more aromatic version called nam pa is used
  • bplaa raa (literally "rotten fish) is used in northern Thailand more frequently than regular fish sauce
  • In Cambodia, a variety of fish-based sauces are used (example:  teuk trei
  • nam prik or nam phrik (literally translated as "chile water" or "fluid chile"), is a generic term for  the spicy chile-based hot sauces of Thailand that often contain some kind of fish or shrimp paste, though the term can also designate certain Thai curry pastes
  • Patis, which is often cooked before eating, is a version of fish sauce found in the Philippines--often on the table as a condiment in lieu of table salt
  • A semi--solid fish paste called terasi is popular in Indonesia; similar fish pastes such as Cambodian prahok, Malay belacan (from fermented krill) or budu (from liquid anchovies) are also found in their respective countries
  • The ethnic Chinese of Hokkien and Teochew also use fish sauce for cooking
  • In the Noto Peninsula of Japan, ishiru is made from sardines and squid, while other types of fish-based sauces can be found elsewhere in the country
  • Korean cooks consider aekjeot or jeotgal to be a crucial ingredient in certain types of kimchi preparation

Burmese Melon Salad with Sesame-Ginger Vinaigrette

Here in Mexico, while fish sauce isn't used in cooking, various dishes contain pounded dried shrimp, an ingredient popular during Lent.  Most of the Mexican cooking students in my classes are unfamiliar with Asian fish sauce, and invariably wrinkle their noses in disgust when I pass it around.  Yet once they try a dish prepared with it, they embrace it.

Here is a delightful salad we prepared in our cooking class on Southeast Asian food on Wednesday.  The fish sauce is virtually undetectable in the final dish, except for giving it that special je ne sais quoi I mentioned before.  This was light, refreshing, and interesting, with multiple layers of flavors.  Everyone loved it, including my students who thought the fish sauce was evil-smelling!

Cook's Notes:  I used sweetened coconut, which though it was fine in this dish, I would have used unsweetened if I had had it on hand.  Do check out the link to the recipe as the presentation is particularly nice.

Recipe:  Burmese Melon Salad with Sesame-Ginger Vinaigrette
(Recipe created by Susan Feniger for The Oprah Magazine)
Serves 4

2 tablespoons unsweetened finely shredded coconut
2 tablespoons white sesame seeds
1/2 cup peanut oil, divided
1/4 cup finely chopped ginger (from a 4-inch piece)
1/4 cup lime juice
1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
2 shallots, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons flour
Kosher salt to taste
3 cups melon (cantaloupe, honeydew, and/watermelon), peeled, seeded, and cut into cubes or rectangles
1/3 cup chopped peanuts, toasted
1/4 cup mixture of chopped basil, cilantro, and mint

Heat a large skillet over medium heat.  Add coconut and toast it, stirring often, until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes.  Remove and set aside.

To make dressing:  Heat a large skillet over medium heat.  Add sesame seeds to skillet and toast, stirring constantly, until golden, about 2 minutes.  Add 1/4 cup peanut oil and ginger; cook, stirrin often, until very fragrant, about 2 to 3 minutes.  Transfer to a large, heatproof bowl and whisk in the lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar; set aside.

In a medium bowl, toss shallots with flour; shake off excess flour.  Heat remaining 1/4 cup peanut oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, about 30 seconds, Add shallots and cook, stirring often, until deep golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes.  Line a plate with paper towels.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer shallots to plate and season with salt to taste; set aside to cool.  

To make salad:  Combine dressing melon, peanuts, herbs, coconut, and shallots; salt to taste.  Toss well; serve immediately.

Lao Mixed Salad with Peanuts and Fried Shallots

This is another light and refreshing salad, perfect as an accompaniment to a Southeast Asian meal or with grilled chicken, fish, shrimp, or pork.

Cook's Notes:  I didn't intend for the egg whites to just be plunked atop the salad, but I discovered I had forgotten to add them after the salad was assembled.  Oops!  We scored the cucumber with a fork, which was a nice visual touch.  I particularly liked this dressing made with egg yolk--a bit different and interesting.

                             Recipe:  Lao Mixed Salad with Peanuts 
                                      and Fried Shallots
                                            (Recipe from Food and Wine Magazine)
                                                                   Serves 4

1 large hard-cooked egg, peeled and halved
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons vegetable oil, plus more for frying
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large shallot, thinly sliced and separated into rings
2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 medium tomatoes, sliced
1 medium cucumber, peeled, and sliced
4 packed cups mesclun salad (4 ounces)
1 bunch watercress (6 ounces), thick stems discarded
2 tablespoons chopped salted peanuts

Separate the egg yolk from the white.  Thinly slice the white.  Put the egg yolk in a blender, add the vinegar and honey and blend until smooth.  With the blender on, slowly pour in the 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons of oil.  Season the dressing with salt and pepper.

In a medium skillet, heat 1/4 inch of oil.  Add the shallot rings and fry over moderate heat, stirring a few times, until golden brown and crisp, about 3 minutes.  With a slotted spoon, transfer the shallot rings to paper towels to drain.  Add the garlic to the hot oil and fry, stirring a few times, until golden, about 1 minute.  Transfer the garlic to the paper towels.

In a large bowl, drizzle the tomato and cucumber slices with 1 tablespoon of the dressing and toss gently.  Arrange the slices around a platter.  Add the mesclun, watercress and sliced egg white to the bowl, top with the remaining dressing and toss well.  Mound the salad on the platter, garnish wit6h the peanuts and the fried shallot and garlic and serve.

Make ahead:  The dressing can be refrigerated overnight.  The fried shallot and garlic can be kept overnight at room temperature.

Lao Mixed Salad with Peanuts and Fried Shallots

Parting Shot:  Moroccan Thistle

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Please ask permission before using text or photos.  Thanks!


Martine @ Chompchomp said...

Great post! I love food from this region. We have done a bit of travelling through Thailand and would love to extend our travels beyond her borders. The cuisine is so light and healthy.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I've grown to really love fish sauce. Now pickled mud fish is another matter. It's sooo strong! :o

Victoria Challancin said...

Pickled mudfish? I may have to draw the line there, though of course I would at least try it! ;-)

Eha said...

Victoria: suddenly I feel quite ignorant - I have used fish sauce at least a few times weekly for decades, always thought it could only be made from anchovies and only knew of nuoc mam and nam prik besides 'plain' fish sauce :) ! And I fancy I know my Australian-Asian fusion cooking!! Have never used it with fruit either and cannot wait to try! And when it becomes possible I so want to share with friends!!! Thanks . . .

Karen (Back Road Journal) said...

Both of your salads sound terrific for summer dining. As to your note, I have not been receiving an email with your new posts.

Joan Nova said...

ooh, I love the idea of adding fish sauce to a fruit salad (along with all those other wonderful ingredients) -- and totally intend to try it. Thanks for posting!

My Kitchen Stories. said...

I had no idea Mexican food included dried shrimp!. The fermented stinky fish in Cambodia has a disgusting smell but it tastes really good. Its hard to figure out why fish sauce is so good to flavour or food. Very lovely and interesting salads Victoria

runescape gold said...

only realized of nuoc mam and nam prik besides 'plain' seafood marinade :) ! And I elegant I know my Australian-Asian combination cooking!! Have never used it with fruits either and cannot hold out to try! And when it becomes possible I so want to discuss with friends!!! Thanks
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