The first time I wrote about fish sauce was for the Thai Glass Noodle Salad (Yum Woon Sen) recipe. It's difficult to talk about Southeast Asian food without talking about fish sauce. Made with anchovies fermented in salt, fish sauce is a staple condiment in Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Burmese, and Lao cuisines.
I also mentioned vegan fish sauce in that post and promised that I would explore the subject further. So here we are! I tested three vegan fish sauce recipes, used them to make the same Thai glass noodle salad, and took tasting notes. In the process, I learned a few things about umami ingredients, lessons that are valuable for everyone, vegan or not.
Commercial Fish Sauce Substitute
If there's vegan oyster sauce in the market, you can bet your bottom dollar that vegan fish sauce exists on the shelves. I was curious to find out what ingredients are used to make commercial vegan fish sauce, so I did some research at my local Asian supermarket.
In truth, we know it's impossible to make vegan fish sauce. Perhaps "fish sauce substitute" is a more accurate term. The goal is to recreate that umami oomph delivered by even just a single drop of fish sauce on the tongue.
A quick look at the bottles pictured above showed the common ingredients to be salt, sugar, and monosodium glutamate (MSG). One of them has "seaweed flavoring" and another soybean. Pineapple sauce may just be the most surprising ingredient of them all. Oh, and to get that nice brown color? Artificial coloring. Frankly, they didn't seem very promising. Not that I have anything against MSG, but a mere combination of salt, sugar, and MSG does not a sauce make.
Make Your Own Fishless Fish Sauce
According to Patricia Tanumihardja, author of Farm to Table Asian Secrets, the concept of a fishless fish sauce recipe was apparently popularised by Mark Bittman in his 2007 cookbook, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. His recipe calls for dulse (a type of seaweed), garlic, light soy sauce, lime juice and zest, and palm sugar, although the dulse is made optional.
Tanumihardja's recipe in her recently released cookbook also calls for seaweed, dried shiitake mushroom, soy sauce, sugar, and lime juice. It appears there are many versions of fishless fish sauce out there and most of them rely on umami-rich ingredients to achieve the taste.
The three recipes I tested feature ingredients with such high umami intensity that they will make your tastebuds jump for joy. The first two recipes came from Omar of Lands and Flavors, and Rika and Doni of Vegan Miam, two of my favorite vegan food and travel blogs. (You can check out my interview with Omar here.)
The final recipe is from UK-based food writer and chef Alice Hart's newly released Good Veg, a vegetarian cookbook with global flavors. I'm sharing her recipe at the end of this post, reprinted with permission from its publisher The Experiment (lucky you!). I'll be writing more about why I love that book in my next post, along with a recipe that will put the vegan fish sauce to good use. You can also try it with the Thai Glass Noodle Salad.
I recommend all three recipes for different reasons that you will find in the notes below. The main distinctions between them are in the time required and how easy it is to find the ingredients. If you make any of them, leave me a comment and tell me about it! And feel free to share with me other vegan fish sauce recipes that you've tried.
1. Vegan Fish Sauce by Lands and Flavors
Main ingredients: Seaweed, dried shiitake mushrooms, soy sauce, tomato paste, miso paste.
Method: Simmer for 20 minutes and squeeze through a cheesecloth.
Umami factor: This recipe requires some effort in the assembly of ingredients and cooking time but it's totally worth it. It is the saltiest of the three recipes and is in my opinion the closest to the taste of fish sauce. The sauce gets its fishiness from two types of seaweed, nori and wakame, its saltiness from soy sauce, and its umami punch from dried shiitake mushrooms and tomato paste. Finally, a little miso paste rounds it up with a slight fermented taste. The recipe makes a generous amount, and due to the high salt content, it keeps well in the refrigerator. So with a little planning and time investment, you'll have a solid fish sauce substitute on hand for a while.
Click here for the recipe.
2. The Brilliant Vegan Fish Sauce by Vegan Miam
Main ingredients: Pineapple juice, light soy sauce/tamari, raw turbinado sugar.
Method: Stir, mix, and refrigerate.
Umami factor: If you need something quick with minimal ingredients, this is the recipe for you. Pineapple juice was a surprise for me at first but it's really quite a brilliant ingredient for making a fuss-free fish sauce substitute. It mimics the pungent smell of fish sauce but produces a sauce that's light, bright, and sweet. I think this is best for no-cook dishes like the Thai glass noodle salad and papaya salad or any other fruit salad. Since it's so easy and convenient to make, I'd be glad to make it again not only when I need a fish sauce substitute, but also when I want something to incorporate into a tangy dip or dressing.
Click here for the recipe.
3. Vegetarian "Fish" Sauce from Good Veg by Alice Hart
Main ingredients: Dried mushrooms, salted fermented black beans, umeboshi plums, miso paste, light soy sauce.
Method: Soak in just-boiled water for 10 minutes.
Umami factor: The first thing I thought when I tasted this was how full-bodied the flavor was, to borrow a term from the wine industry. It is salty, earthy, and pungent. The depth of its flavor is characterised by the use of dried mushrooms (shiitake or cloud ears preferred), salted fermented black beans, and umeboshi plums along with miso paste and light soy sauce. It can be a challenge to find some of these ingredients, so making this is a project that requires some level of determination and commitment. The result, I promise you, is rewarding and delicious.
Salted fermented black beans are exactly what the name suggests except they are black soy beans and not the black beans we are perhaps more familiar with in the West. You might have come across them in Chinese stir-fries and braises. They contribute a significant "bean" taste and earthiness to this vegan fish sauce. You can find them packed in plastic bags (as pictured above) in the same aisle as other preserved ingredients in an Asian supermarket.
Umeboshi plums are pickled Japanese ume plums flavored with the leaves of the beefsteak plant, also known as perilla or shiso, which give them a reddish-pink color. Salty and tart, they are used in making the Japanese rice balls onigiri. Your best bet for finding umeboshi is the Japanese supermarket but I've also seen them in Whole Foods. Look for them in small plastic tubs or vacuum-sealed bags in the refrigerator section.
Dried shiitake mushrooms and cloud ears are available in most Asian grocery stores and you can find details about them in my previous posts here and here. Once you have the ingredients, the difficult part is over and all it takes next is a 10-minute soak to produce this wonderfully complex fish sauce substitute that stands just as well as its own sauce.
Scroll down for the recipe.
Vegan Fishless Fish Sauce
A complex, umami-rich, vegan substitute for fish sauce. Recipe from Good Veg by Alice Hart reprinted with permission from The Experiment. Makes about 3/4 cup (200ml).
1/4 cup (5g) dried mushrooms, preferably cloud ear or shiitake
2 tablespoons salted, fermented black beans
2 umeboshi plums (or substitute with 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar)
1 teaspoon miso paste, ideally a mild yellow or white
1/3 cup (75ml) light soy sauce
Cover the mushrooms, beans, plums and miso paste with 3/4 cup (200ml) just-boiled water and mash roughly with the back of a spoon. Set aside to soak for 10 minutes. Strain the soaking water through a fine sieve, pressing down firmly, and stir in the soy sauce.
Transfer to a clean jar and cover. Chill and it will last for a few weeks.
Use it! Here are recipes that use Vegan Fish Sauce.