Cooking with Fish Sauce

 Ma‘ono’s Mark Fuller dishes on his go-to ingredient

To the uninitiated, the mention of fish sauce might well result in wrinkled noses. However, the oft-misunderstood ingredient brings a welcome punch to a variety of dishes. Because fish sauce falls outside the flavor categories typically recognized by the American palate, the savory-salty taste is hard to define. The Japanese describe it as “umami”—roughly translated as “deliciousness.” At Ma‘ono, the mystery works.

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“People won’t know why the food tastes great, but it does and that’s what matters,” says Mark Fuller, chef and owner of Ma‘ono Fried Chicken & Whisky (West Seattle, 4437 California Ave. SW; 206.935.1075; maono.springhillnorthwest.com), a Hawaiian-influenced restaurant that also serves now-famous fried chicken dinners. “I’m looking for flavor in all of my dishes and fish sauce is a fermented product that’s a bit funky and offers subliminal and compelling flavor.”

Fuller relies on fish sauce for his kimchi, adding it during the beginning stages of a three-day maceration, along with raw oysters, to give the cabbage a kick-start. This fiery relish is served with the fried chicken as an aromatic, fresh-tasting side. Fuller also opts for fish sauce—instead of the more traditional anchovies—in a version of Caesar salad. “I use it as a flavor like I would use salt,” he says.

Why you should try it: A versatile pantry staple, fish sauce imparts a noticeable difference in recipes—and not just in the usual Asian fare. Use it in place of soy sauce or other pungent foods, like cheese. A splash can be added to sauces and broths for body.

Where to find it: Fuller uses Three Crabs fish sauce at Ma‘ono. “It’s the best fish sauce we can get here. It’s high quality and it’s readily available,” he says. At home, he opts for Red Boat artisanal fish sauce, which is more of a splurge. Both are available at Uwajimaya stores (Bellevue, Chinatown–International District, Renton; uwajimaya.com). Three Crabs and other brands can be found at H Mart locations (Bellevue, 100 108th Ave. NE; 425.990.8000; hmartus.com).

How to use it: A little goes a long way. “In moderation, it can elevate just about anything,” Fuller says. Try adding a spoonful to marinades and vinaigrettes. Combine lemon juice, olive oil and fish sauce and brush it over your veggie kebabs right as they come off the grill. Try a splash in your mac and cheese or risotto, in place of Parmesan. But, Fuller says, “Start with a few drops and taste as you go.