I cook a few recipes that use Vietnamese fish sauce to boost levels of umami, and which are otherwise vegetarian. Kenji’s slow cooked tomato sauce, which uses canned tomatoes, is one. I’d like to keep these dishes vegan though, and avoid using soy sauce, the dark color of which will reveal the secret ingredient or in some dishes, like a white bean purée, look gross. What alternatives would you recommend?
Here’s what I’ve come up with. First, there’s some confusion about naming— there’s the ingredient “fish sauce” an umami source made from fish and salt. Vietnamese nuoc mam is usually made from anchovies. There’s also nuoc cham, a dipping sauce condiment, which usually has nuoc mam, sugar, lime, etc… The latter would work for finishing a dish, but I don’t think it would work for cooking. Here’s what I’ve dug up:
Nuoc mam alternatives
Vietnamese food expert Andrea Nguyen reviewed a store bought version of nuoc mam unfavorably. Luckily she has made her own version, which she refers to as “nuoc mam chay.” It requires overnight soaking, but not a lot of work. It uses kombu seaweed and “mushroom seasoning granules”, which I’d have to look for.
The Kitchn’s version uses mushroom soy sauce(a dark viscous soy sauce with some type of mushroom extract), seaweed, and miso. Sounds promising— lots of umami, but the color would make some recipes turn gray.
Cook’s Illustrated: their recipe reads like a recipe for Mushroom soy sauce, umami, but no hint of seafood
Nuoc cham, dipping sauce
The Vegan fish sauce I’ve seen at Asian markets is actually nuoc cham, a dipping sauce alternative, not a fish sauce alternative.
Andrea Nguyen’s version has sugar, lime, kelp, and shiitake mushrooms.
Mark Bittman’s “fishless fish sauce” : I made a batch today and added the additional step of pureeing it in a coffee grinder. The heavy amount of lime makes this appropriate as a dip, but not as an ingredient in cooking. I mixed it with rice and it would be a good dip for tofu, spring rolls, or tempeh.
Also, @Ttrockwood, which of the above (or another!), do you use when you make David Chang’s roasted Brussels sprouts recipe? I can imagine any of the above working. I’ve made the regular version with bottled fish sauce and a vegetarian version with soy sauce and served them side by side. Both are delicious, but different.