Here’s a little history on fish sauce. The first printed instance of fish sauce appears in the 2,000 year old Roman cookbook Apicius. They called it garum and liquamen (they were two different types), but the Ancient Greeks are credited for inventing it between the 3rd and 4th centuries BC. These were stinky sauces and they provided the umami that humans love.
Since then, Europeans seem to have forgotten fish sauce, but only sort of. The English used to call it fishpickle and it was adapted from the Indonesian kecap (from the Chinese ke-tsiap). See where this is going? Yep. Ke-tsiap evolved into the ubiquitous all-American ketchup (except it’s not, it too is an import!). Fish sauce is still ubiquitous in Asia, where you will find it in Japan (ayu, ishiri and a few other types), Vietnam (nuoc mam), Thailand (nam pla), Burma (ngan by a yay), Lao (nam pa), Cambodia (teuk trei), Philippines (patis) and Korea (jeot gal). In Italy, although fish sauce per se no longer exists, as my friend MP astutely pointed out, lots of dishes today contain anchovies that have been cooked so they completely dissolve in the base sauce.
For a full history of the evolution of fish sauce, find a copy of Meatpaper‘s “Fishue” (issue Nineteen), and read the fascinating article by Sophia Hussain, “To Explode in Slow Motion: The ancient history of fish sauce” (great little magazine, by the way).
Preferring to leave the fish in the sea where they should be plentiful, I didn’t mind one bit leaving out the anchovies and foregoing any type of fish sauce. But with the good folks at Au Lac Pure Vegetarian Trade & Manufacture Co., Ltd (who make a range of vegetarian products and even have restaurants), there is now a kind choice! Au Lac have concocted a vegan fish sauce to provide us with a kind umami. And I’m very happy about it. On Messy Vegetarian Cook’s recommendation, I recently went vegan-hunting to London Star Night Market in Hackney and purchased, among other things (quite the haul, I must admit, see photo below) Au Lac’s nuoc mam chay, which translates to vegetarian fish sauce and thuc pham chay to vegetarian food.
I spent a fair amount of time at Star Night Market because it is a terrific place and couldn’t help purchasing a few more items. I only used the noodles and the vegan fish sauce in the recipe below (after the photos). The entire dish takes about 20-30 minutes.
Here is the soup without noodles
And here is the soup complete with all ingredients
- 2.5-2 litres of water
- 50g ginger/galangal, chopped into small chunks
- 70g mushrooms, sliced
- 70g string beans, chopped in half or thirds if very long
- 1 teaspoon asafoetida
- 1-2 Tablespoons toasted sesame oil
- 1-2 chilies (either the very small ones that the Thai refer to as plik or whatever you find)
- 1 small onion, chopped finely
- 6 plum tomatoes, halved
- 60g sugar snap peas, whole
- 75g baby corn, chopped
- 4 lime leaves
- 4 Tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 limes, juiced
- 227g packet of tempeh, chopped (or use firm tofu or textured soy protein chunks, not soaked if using the latter)
- 50g coriander, chopped with a few leaves left whole
- 50g seaweed, small strips or sprinkles (optional, but so tasty, so why leave them out)
- 400g rice noodles (I used red rice noodles, but any rice noodle will do)
Start by heating the oil, ginger, chilis and asafoetida in a large saucepan on medium-high heat. After a 2-3 minutes, add the onions and let them sweat for 5 minutes. Add the fish sauce and tempeh/tofu/textured soy protein and let it colour slightly with the ingredients, then add the water, the mushrooms and all the other ingredients except for the lime juice, coriander, seaweed strips and noodles. Let the water come to a boil and then turn down the heat to a simmer and stir from time to time. Now add the lime juice, coriander and seaweed strips.
As you wait for the soup to boil, prepare the noodles. In a separate saucepan, boil lightly salted water. When the water comes to a roiling boil, add the noodles. Rice noodles cook very very quickly, much more quickly than wheat pasta, so keep an eye on them – 3-4 minutes should do it. Once they’re ready, drain and scoop them out into great big bowls and add the soup. Garnish with the left over whole coriander leaves. Serve hot. Serves 2, heartily.