Nam Pla – Thai Fish Sauce
If you were asked to choose the ingredient most characteristic of Thai cuisine what would you pick? Lemon grass maybe? fiery, brightly-coloured chillies, or perhaps garlic? What you probably wouldn’t pick is the special Thai fish sauce called Nam Pla. Whilst it is one of the most crucial elements of Thai cooking Nam Pla is often forgotten – probably because on its own it smells pretty bad. But don’t hold that against it, when it is added to Thai dishes it imparts a unique richness of flavour that makes it far more than the sum of its parts.
Nam Pla is a sauce made by adding salt to fish, usually anchovies – and leaving it to ferment. After straining the result of this fermentation process is Nam Pla. This might sound like a simple process but so does fermenting grapes and look at the variety of wines there are out there. Thai people are serious about their fish sauce and in addition to the most common supermarket brands there are hundreds of smaller home-produced recipes. Certain regions of Thailand are noted as being producers of great fish sauce and Trat province is one such area.
As a cooking ingredient fish sauce is used firstly as a flavour enhancer. Thais typically do not add salt to their dishes, the saltiness of nam pla is instead used to bring out the flavour in a dish. Typically fish sauce is 60-75% fish, with the remainder being salt with sometimes 1-3% sugar. There is usually a bowl of Prik Nam Pla at the table in a Thai restaurant. This is nam pla and chopped chillies (of course) and it is added to food in the same way as table salt.