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Fish sauce (Recipe: Thai beef salad)

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.

Fish sauce

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.

Thai beef salad too.

Thai beef salad

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.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Laotian chicken and herb salad
Rice stick noodle salad with caramelized shrimp
Fresh Vietnamese salad rolls
Salmon and Asian pesto potstickers

Need more ideas for how to create salads with pizzazz? Get Dress Up Your Salad, my e-book packed with easy mix-and-match recipes, full-color photos and a few fun videos. Exciting salad recipes from everyday ingredients can be just one click away, on any computer, tablet or smart phone, with the FREE Kindle Reading app. Click here to learn more.

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any chance that you could fedex some the next time you make this??

I use that very brand, too. It's good, isn't it?

Lydia, I just learned on my recent trip to Vietnam that the Vietnamese version is lighter than the Thai Version. So if you're using Thai in a Viet recipe, you need to cut back a little on the fish sauce.

When I took a cooking class in Thailand, they used Tiperos brand, which I was able to find in the states... so that is what I use.

Lydia- I thought of you the minute I heard the term "ingredient smuggler"!!! I swear it :) It was the very same concept as your blog, but your blog is way more entertaining than anything on Food Network.

This salad looks great. I LOVE fish sauce. Great "secret" ingredient. I always have a bottle on hand!

Making a note of this brand! I'm overdue for a trip to the Asian market anyway. Love the sound of this!

Sounds like a fish sauce to try. The salad looks extraordinary good! oh my and how easy could that be but still getting marvelous flavor.

It's called "patis" in the Philippines. I use three crabs mainly, but for filipino food like adobo I keep a small bottle of Rufina patis.

Hmm...I hope it lasts longer than a few months, because my bottle has been in the pantry for a year, and I just used some last night.

Oh well, I'm not dead yet...

Summer in a bowl...looks like the perfect dinner for this steamy day we're having in New York!

He probably would have gotten his own show, if he'd explained his ingredients in the thorough, informative, and thoroughly entertaining way that you always do! :-)

Here's a recipe I invented: I call it Fish Sauce Fights Gravity and Loses. At work, a colleague put a large glass bottle of fish sauce on the shelf inside the fridge door. I opened the fridge, the shelf decided to give way, and the bottle broke. Et voila!

I make a thai beef salad with lettuce, which I love, so I can't wait to try this version with cabbage.

I just recently bought that brand of fish sauce because they were out of the squid brand that I usually by. It did seem milder to me.

According to the Food Network website, in Suzie's vlog, she says to "keep your eyes peeled" for Jeffrey. So look for them not to let him get away from them without giving him some air time. Then it'll be up to him to sell himself to the audience at large.

Milton, I've never had any leftovers -- we love this salad.

Anh, this is truly my favorite. I love that you love it, too.

Julia, that's a great tip. Thanks so much for sharing it. I've not heard of the Tiperos. We'll have to do a taste test.

Nupur, TW, Janet: You all make me smile. I had the same feeling about Jeffrey, that they will find a place for him on the network. He just needs some face time with the camera, I think.

Alta, there's really no substitute for fish sauce -- it's a must for the pantry.

Kalyn, this is a great all-purpose fish sauce, not as fishy as some others. I hope you can find it.

MyKitchen, Laura: easy, easy easy, and perfect for summer!

Veron, thanks -- now there's another brand I need to investigate!

Erika, I always try to give conservative estimates for pantry shelf life here. Because the sauce is fermented, it will last a long time -- but when it turns, it will be awful. You'll be able to smell and taste the difference.

Lucia, that's a recipe I might not want to try!

Pam, you can certainly substitute cabbage or lettuce for the broccoli slaw here. What's the brand of sauce you usually buy?

Yum! Lydia, where do you get Thai basil - do you grow your own? I have a hard time finding it.

I actually liked Melissa as well as Jeffrey, although I'm disappointed that they changed the concept of her show to another "food on a budget" program. The Food Network usually manages to hang on to the people they like - look at Adam "Will Work for Food" from last year.

I was voting for Jeffrey because he had a way of describing food that really showed his passion for it. I admit I like Melissa's "take away" tips; but she was a bit hyper!
as for fish sauce...I have to say that I can't get past what it is. I prefer to eat these dishes in restaurants where I can pretend I don't know what makes it so tasty.
:-) (silly I know!)

Perhaps I should try another brand. The couple I have tried in the past were overly fishy, and I have a sensitive nose! Your Thai beef salad looks absolutely delicious!

Judy, I do grow my own Thai basil, but it's also available in Asian markets. (And I think Adam is perfectly suited to the show they created for him, which doesn't involve much cooking at all.)

Carol, agreed about Jeffrey. But not about fish sauce! In order to cook good food from any cuisine, you need to use authentic condiments and spices from that cuisine. So hold your nose when you open the bottle of fish sauce, but please give it another try.

Susan, this is one condiment that really varies widely from one brand to the other. Three Crabs is a milder and sweeter brand -- which isn't to say that it isn't fishy, because it is. But maybe this will be a brand that works for you.

I love Three Crabs brand. It's the best that we've had so far in San Jose.

If I could drink this sauce, I would. But it would probably kill me. And even if it didn't, Annie would probably kill me for trying.

aha! A Filipino friend recommended Three Crabs band to me, but when I went to the market I only found Two Crabs and Five Crabs - or something like that, some numbers other than Three. I bought the Fiver, but I wonder - are they different brands, or different grades of the same brand??

Nate, I could never drink it -- an acquired taste, perhaps?! But I wouldn't be without it in my pantry.

Karen, I had no idea there are sauces with different numbers of crabs in the name! I'm guessing they are different brands entirely.

I finally made this the other night and threw in some extra things lurking in my fridge (julienne snow peas and daikon). Oh man, this was so good even though I made extra to keep for lunch the next day, I finished it all that night. :(

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