I mention its use in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, and you may notice it on some fish sauce labels. Sodium benzoate is a preservative that’s found in certain acidic foods (e.g., salad dressings, and pickles), medicines, and cosmetics. As a rule of thumb, I generally buy ingredients with the least amount of chemicals involved.
Looking back at Viet World Kitchen blog postings, I came across Singaporean-based food expert Chris Tan's fish sauce tasting conducted a few years back. He has a terrific palate and sent me his tasting notes. When rereading Chris’s comments, I noticed one fish sauce that he said tasted flat, a quality that he attributed to the presence of sodium benzoate. Indeed, there is a flabby, almost zingy, aftertaste that certain fish sauces have, especially when sodium benzoate is present. So that’s a negative for it being used in fish sauce – bad flavor!
I examined all the fish sauces in my pantry the other day and none of them had sodium benzoate. My collection included Viet Huong’s 3 Crabs and Phu Quoc brands, MegaChef, and Red Boat’s 35 and 40 dam (a notation of concentrated flavor, the higher the number, the better). Viet Huong combines Vietnamese and Thai fish sauces into their blending process. MegaChef is aged Thai nam pla. Red Boat (full disclosure: they advertise on this site) is pure Vietnamese nuoc mam from Phu Quoc.
These are premium fish sauces that cost a little more than the competition and they’re worth it. Use them for dipping sauces and they'll make your food shine. Or, sprinkle some on a bowl of hot rice. I just use them for all my cooking and sauce needs as they make my food taste really good.
You can find Viet Huong at many Asian markets. MegaChef has yet to be distributed in the States so you have to be in Thailand to get it! With regard to obtaining Red Boat fish sauce, order it from Amazon.
Safety of sodium benzoate?