Six months ago, New York chef Marc Forgione had hardly heard of fish sauce. Then he watched his chef-partner Soulayphet Schwader using it to flavor nearly every dish at their new Laotian restaurant Khe-Yo.
Now, it's in all of his restaurant kitchens.
"It's like a new thing in my arsenal," Forgione said. "Instead of saying, 'Let's add salt or soy sauce,' it's 'Let's add a little fish sauce.' "
Used at least as far back as ancient Rome, and known today primarily as a flavor enhancer in Asian cuisines, the seasoning made from fermented -- read as rotting -- fish is about to have its kale moment. Fish sauce is making its way out of the ethnic ghetto and taking its place next to salt in American restaurant kitchens as many chefs embrace its complex profile and ability to intensify other flavors.
"You don't necessarily see it on menus as an ingredient, but almost every chef I know -- no matter what cuisine -- has fish sauce in the kitchen," said chef Andy Ricker, of Portland's PokPok, who has been using fish sauce for decades in his Asian cuisine. "They use it to season. It gives this immediate boost of umami."
Applying fish sauce in dishes isn't a big stretch when you consider that anchovies often are used in a similar manner -- to create layers of flavor.
"Fish sauce adds a different kind of depth that's more interesting," said Chef Jamie Bissonnette, who keeps fish sauce in his two Boston kitchens. "It's the same as cooking with fresh pork: If you cook with ham, or something that's been aged for a while, you get that breakdown of fermentation and flavor."
Fermentation is the key to fish sauce, igniting a process that makes it function like the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (better known as MSG). Fermentation creates compounds called glutamates, which heighten flavors and create a sensation of umami, or savoriness.
"Fish sauce just enhances everything that's already there," Ricker said. "When we marinate our wings with fish sauce and sugar, we're just doubling down on stuff that's already there and adding layers on top of it."
Easy access to international recipes on the Internet, a growing fascination with global cuisine, and the expanding quality and variety of fish sauce (already available at most grocers) is contributing to its growing popularity, chefs say.
Caesar Squash PappardelleStart to finish: 20 minutes. Servings: 6.
1 pound pappardelle pasta
1 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded and thinly sliced
1 medium zucchini, thinly sliced lengthwise
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions.
About 4 minutes before the pasta is done cooking, add the butternut squash. Then 2 minutes later, add the zucchini. Cook everything for another 2 minutes. Reserve 1/3 cup of the cooking water, then drain.
Transfer the pasta, squash and zucchini to a large bowl. Add the garlic, fish sauce, black pepper, olive oil and reserved cooking liquid. Add the Parmesan cheese and parsley, tossing the pasta to thoroughly coat everything and melt the cheese. Serve immediately.
Nutrition: 440 calories; 90 calories from fat (20 percent of total calories); 10 grams fat (3 grams saturated; 0 grams trans fats); 10 milligrams cholesterol; 72 grams carbohydrate; 5 grams fiber; 5 grams sugar; 17 grams protein; 700 milligrams sodium.
-- Recipe by Alison Ladman
Bloody Mary Chicken with Olive-Celery Tapenade
Start to finish: 30 minutes, plus marinating time. Servings: 6.
11.5-ounce can V8 vegetable juice
3 tablespoons fish sauce
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
3 tablespoons prepared horseradish
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 pounds chicken breast tenders
3 stalks celery, finely chopped
1/2 cup green olives, finely chopped
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup Peppadew peppers (or other sweet-hot peppers), chopped
In a zip-close plastic bag, combine the V8, fish sauce, Worcestershire, horseradish and cayenne pepper. Add the chicken, close the bag, squeezing out any air, then refrigerate and allow to marinate for 2 to 6 hours.
Meanwhile, prepare the tapenade. In a medium bowl, combine the celery, olives, lemon juice, garlic and peppers. Stir well and allow to sit for at least 1 hour at room temperature for best flavor. Can be prepared ahead and refrigerated, then allowed to come to room temperature before serving.
When ready to cook the chicken, heat a grill to high. Remove the chicken from the marinade and grill on well-oiled grates for 3 minutes per side, or until cooked through. Serve topped with the tapenade.
Nutrition information per serving: 170 calories; 25 calories from fat (15 percent of total calories); 2.5 g fat (0 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 65 mg cholesterol; 8 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 5 g sugar; 27 g protein; 1,150 mg sodium.
-- Recipe by Alison Ladman