It seems like an oxymoron but vegetarian fish sauces do exist! For the Asian Culinary Association’s gala dinner last night in San Francisco, I did a fish sauce and fresh herb tasting for 150 guests, chefs, and students of the California Culinary Academy. Aside from the Bobby Chin contraband fish sauce that I’ve been keeping in the fridge, I bought the rest at Vietnamese and Chinese markets in San Jose. The fish sauce bottles included Viet Huong’s 3 and 1 crab, Tiparos, Squid, Ruffino, and Roland brand.
Of the eight fish sauces in the tasting, the one that I was most intrigued by was the vegetarian fish sauce pictured above, which cost $1.99. I’d seen vegetarian fish sauces in the past but never tried them. I’m an omnivore and was raised Catholic.
For this event, however, I thought that it would be interesting to see how the vegetarian nuoc mam stacked up. The label said that it contained soybeans, peanuts, water, salt, and sugar. In other words, it was had a soy sauce-like composition. There wasn't any wheat in the vegetarian fish sauce so it is a plausible gluten-free type of fish sauce.
At the event, we opened up the bottle and the color -- as you see below – was similar to that of fish sauce. The one on the left is the vegetarian fish sauce and the on the right is the regular stuff.
In the sniff test, the vegetarian fish sauce came out okay. It had a vaguely umami, briny quality.
Then we tasted with spoons and cucumber sticks. Yuck. It was just salty and flat. Completely lacking depth. I was disappointed. But for the sake of being educational, I included the vegetarian fish sauce in the lineup. If you don’t taste, you can’t learn! As the night went on, many tasters didn't care for the vegetarian fish sauce.
But I’m an optimist so today, I tried making a nuoc cham dipping sauce with the vegetarian fish sauce. It went nowhere and I threw the sauce away. It tasted terrible. The bottle went into the trash too.
The times that I’ve had Vietnamese mock meat dishes, the cooks didn’t play many games by using bottled vegetarian fish sauce. They basically diluted soy sauce with water for color and used other ingredients such as rice vinegar, salt, and sugar to create a delicately flavored sauce. I’ve had people simply sub soy sauce for fish sauce in certain recipes (such as caramel sauce kho) and the results were good, though not the same as when fish sauce was used.
However, because of the color and smell of the vegetarian fish sauce came so close to the real thing, I hold out hope that someone will create a condiment that has a decent flavor – without the fish. Seems like molecular gastronomy can do handle that!
Do you have experience with or thoughts on vegetarian fish sauce? Is it a waste of time or not? Do you know of a good brand? Or a workaround? Do share!