Q: Dear CBA,
I’ve been wondering for a while what the deal is with fish sauce. How can something that smells so gross be so popular? I mean, it smells like extra-putrid rotten fish. I’ve tried cooking with it, and the food ends up tasting like fish sauce smells.
I love Thai food, and I know they use a lot of fish sauce, so I’m wondering how they get away with it?
—Not Quite Hooked
A: Dear Unhooked,
I’ve experienced the same phenomenon, so I sympathize. The trick to using fish sauce is that you add a few drops to dishes that have strong flavors in other ways, and the power of the competing flavors balances out.
There is a type of Thai spicy salad, for example, called yam, that’s made in a big mortar and pestle, with lots of chile, lime, vinegar, curry powder, pork rind, whole small crabs and other very strong flavors. I watched a guy make me some at a Bangkok market, and between scoops into the various ingredients he would rinse his spoon by squirting it with fish sauce over the salad. After a bunch of rinses, he added more fish sauce and stirred it up.
I proceeded to eat my salad, and you know what? It was one of the most disgusting things I’ve eaten in Bangkok, due in no small part to all the fish sauce.
The point is, part of your issue is you simply haven’t acquired the taste for the stuff.
But a good coconut curry, with lots of spice, lemongrass, lime, ginger, kaffir lime leaf, etc., is so strong that it can hold its own and absorb a reasonable amount of fish sauce without being overwhelmed, and even novices like you or me can appreciate it.