One of the holy grails of vegan cooking will be a flawless fish sauce substitute. This isn’t it. What this is, is a simple to put together substitute that works well in most cases. I know, way to sell it! Fish sauce is a foundational ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisine, meaning that the cuisine itself has developed around that flavor profile. Imagine French cuisine without the onion, or Italian cuisine without the garlic. It would simply be a shadow of its former self, something always missing. So it is without fish sauce. Sure, you can substitute soy sauce and get that salty, umami boost, but soy lends a distinct flavor of its own (and for that matter it soy sauce is often used side by side with fish sauce, so it would be redundant to add more). Water just dilutes the flavors. I’ve tried black olive brine a few times, which actually works pretty well in small quantities (better in cooked dishes than in uncooked sauces). But in the end, all of these options fall short.
I came up with this option a little while ago and, in all honesty, I’m still trying it out in various settings. But, in the dishes that I’ve made with it, it has provided a nice bit of flavor complexity. Fish sauce adds moisture, salt, umami (savory flavor), flavor of the sea, a little color, and a special unique ‘X’ factor. This substitute hits most of those notes, but lacks that ‘X’ factor. It also seems to weaken in flavor when cooked, I problem I haven’t solved yet.
So, it is what it is: a useful substitute that I find better than the usual alternatives. I strongly recommend that you give it a try. It only takes a couple of minutes to make and gets used in equal quantities in recipes. I’ll keep working in it and refining it, and as it gets better, I’ll post updates or even suggestions on how best to use it. Let me know what you think.
- 1 cup water
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce, tamari or coconut aminos
- 2 tablespoons dried wakame seaweed
- Combine everything in a small bowl and allow the wakame to steep
- After around 10 minutes a pronounced ‘sea’ flavor will be present.
- Remove the wakame, squeeze it dry, and reserve for another purpose, or just eat it!
- Use it as you would traditional fish sauce, in equal quantities.