Photo: Jennifer Causey

Plus, why these 6 make-at-home recipes will or won’t work

Arielle Weg
November 30, 2017

I often come home to the sweet scent of sautéed garlic, ginger, and soy sauce coming from my kitchen. My roommate stands in the kitchen, slicing fish cakes into long, bite-sized pieces and browning beef before tossing in vegetables. She’s the queen of Korean cooking, and I watch in awe as she scoops perfectly cooked spoonfuls of white rice from her rice cooker into a bowl.

What happens next is our usual routine: I comment on how envious I am of everything she cooks, she offers me some, and I politely decline. I don’t eat meat or shellfish, so unfortunately I can’t partake in most of the Korean cuisine she makes.

This week, over dinner, we began to talk about Korean foods and how I could one day sample the flavors. She said she could replace the meat or shellfish with tofu in most dishes, but the real issue was the fish sauce. Fish sauce is the core of many Korean meals, and there really isn’t a good (or at least well known) replacement. Though this vegan version is available online, this was when my quest to find an authentic vegan fish sauce recipe began. 

I surveyed some colleagues to figure what kind of flavors I was looking for in recipes, and turned to Google for the results. Here are six vegan fish sauce recipes I’m willing to try, and my thoughts on why they will or won’t work.

Cooks Illustrated

The ingredients: Dried shiitake mushroom broth, salt, soy sauce.

Why it works: The recipe explains that soy sauce contains glutamates, a taste bud stimulator that gives food umami flavor, and mushroom broth provides nucleotides, another source of savory flavors. It seems like these ingredients tap into the actual science behind fish sauce.

Why it doesn’t: The salt in this recipe just seems unnecessary, and mixing three tablespoons of salt with two tablespoons of soy sauce is sodium overkill. Plus, it’s lacking the funk fish sauce brings to dishes.

The Kitchn

The ingredients: Shredded seaweed, water, garlic, peppercorns, mushroom soy sauce, miso.

Why it works: The seaweed and miso will bring a fermented flavor that true fish sauce adds to dishes, while the garlic and peppercorns bring savory flavors.

Why it doesn’t: The recipe refers to the flavor as “unbearable salty”, which is a bit concerning, but if you can find a grocery store that has shredded seaweed, mushroom soy sauce, and miso readily available, this sounds like a winner in my book.

Food52

The ingredients: Water, organic sugar, soy sauce, distilled vinegar, liquid from a jar of fermented tofu, wakame powder, sea salt.

Why it works: Toss together some fermented tofu liquid, distilled vinegar, and wakame powder and you’ll absolutely get that fermented, fishy flavor.

Why it doesn’t: I don’t even know where I would find a jar of fermented tofu, and then what do I do with it after I’ve extracted two tablespoons of the liquid? Also, why do I need to add two tablespoons of sugar? No one has ever described fish sauce to me as sweet.

Veg News

The ingredients: Soy sauce, garlic, hot pepper flakes, lemon or lime juice, sugar, water.

Why it works: Pretty much any grocery store carries these ingredients, so this is the most realistic recipe from the bunch. I also almost always have these on-hand, so this would be great in a pinch.

Why it doesn’t: Soy sauce is not fish sauce. If it was, I could have been replacing it years ago. This recipe is just a dressed up soy sauce, and I’m missing the funk of a true fish sauce.

Epicurious 

The ingredients: Shiitake mushroom broth, salt, soy sauce.

Why it works: It’s really simple and attainable. Boil dried mushrooms down to reveal an umami-rich broth and mix it with some extra salt and soy sauce. It’s salty, savory, and best of all, it’s easy.

Why it doesn’t: The addition of fermented or fishy ingredients would really bring this more together. The mushrooms will enhance the soy sauce, but will it really trick me into thinking it’s fish sauce? No, probably not.

Joy of Kosher 

The Ingredients: shredded seaweed, water, garlic, black peppercorn, mushroom soy sauce, light soy sauce, miso paste.

Why it works: The four key ingredients that bring the fish sauce flavor are soy sauce, mushroom, miso, and seaweed. This is the only recipe that brings in all of these umami rich, salty flavors—I could see this recipe being successful.

Why it doesn’t: These ingredients aren’t easy to come by without an Asian market in town. Plus, a mushroom soy sauce might not bring the flavor a true mushroom broth can.