Fish sauce (Recipe: Thai beef salad)
You watched it, didn't you? The finale of The Next Food Network Star?
Somewhat predictably, the judges selected the mother-of-four whose show could have broad appeal in these challenging economic times. But I was pulling for the other guy, the one who didn't win, the one Alton Brown dubbed The Ingredient Smuggler.
The one most likely to do an entire episode about salty, smelly, absolutely indispensable fish sauce.
Asian fish sauce, called nuoc mam in Vietnam, and nam pla in Thailand, is the water, or juice, in the flesh of fish, extracted in the process of prolonged salting and fermentation. Most often, the fish used are anchovies, as they are plentiful in the waters off the coast of Thailand. In Thai and Vietnamese cooking, fish sauce plays a similar role to that of soy sauce in Chinese and Japanese cooking, to add saltiness to the dish.
The quality and taste of fish sauces vary widely, and I experimented with many before I found the one that gave me the flavor most like the food I love in restaurants.
Now I'm strictly a Three Crabs brand girl. Three Crabs is a bit different from other fish sauces available in my Asian supermarket, because it contains fructose, which makes it sweeter and also smoother than the naturally processed brands. To me, all that matters is that, unlike many other brands I sampled, this one makes nuoc cham, the condiment and dipping sauce used for salad rolls and noodle salads, that tastes most like the sauce I'm accustomed to eating in Thai and Vietnamese restaurants.
Made from fermented fish, nam pla keeps for months at room temperature in your pantry. I've only seen it sold in a 24-ounce bottle, with a distinctive pink label. Shake it a bit before using it in stir fried fish with black bean sauce, Thai fish cakes, grilled red snapper with lemongrass and chili, ginger-lime dipping sauce, or rice noodles with chicken.
Thai beef salad
Quickly improvised from leftover cooked beef, store-bought broccoli slaw, and a dressing you can make a week in advance. Serves 2-3 as a main dish.
1/2 lb grilled flank steak, thinly sliced
12-oz bag of broccoli slaw, or 12 oz (total) of julienned broccoli and carrots
3-6 leaves of Thai basil, torn into small pieces
1/2 tsp chili paste with garlic (I use Lan Chi brand)
1/2 cup hot water
2 Tbsp sugar (more or less, to taste), or equivalent amount of sugar substitute
3 Tbsp fish sauce (I use Three Crabs brand)
Juice of 1/2 lime
In a large mixing bowl, combine steak, broccoli slaw and basil.
In a small jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine remaining ingredients. Shake, then taste and adjust seasoning with more chili paste, sugar or lime, to your own preference.
Pour the sauce over the salad ingredients, and stir well to combine. If possible, allow to sit, stirring occasionally, for 30-60 minutes before serving. Serve at room temperature, or chilled.