Vegan fish sauce alternatives

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.

Of the commercial products most vegetarian cookbooks suggest Golden Mountain as a fish sauce substitute. It’s been years since I used it but I believe it would also be fairly dark. Also I think what fish sauce adds is not just a general umami but a fairly specific fermented taste - you might have good results experimenting with different kinds of miso which would provide a variety of fermented tastes. I mean just the miso by itself, not integrated into a sauce - don’t you generally add fish sauce at the end of cooking, as with miso?

I loved Dr. Braggs liquid aminos when I was eating vegan. Very umami, and definitely not soy flavor. It’s hard to describe, but I think it would be closer to a fish sauce flavor, rather than soy, although most people use it as a soy sauce substitute.

There are also coconut aminos, but I don’t find them as savory.

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Vegemite

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Golden Mountain is the color of a light soy sauce. I use it in my Asian cooking, but I would never consider it to be a sub for fish sauce.

I don’t think i have ever had actual fish sauce now that i think about it…
for the momofuku sprouts i reduced the total amount (i think the recipe is for a 1/2c, i reduced to 1/3) and just used a mix of mostly “vegetarian fish sauce” i bought in chinatown with bit of soy sauce. Just not invested enough to deal with the various make your own recipes.

For adding that umami flavor to cooking i use soy sauce for tomato dishes, anything with mushrooms, and soups. I would add a TB or so of soy sauce to the kenji tomato sauce, it doesn’t discolor the dish since there is such a small amount compared to the tomatoes. Otherwise i would use nutritional yeast

Something you don’t want to color i will add in white miso or the ultimate umami maker nutritional yeast. Nutritional yeast is fantastic because it adds that flavor yet without salt. i’ll add nutritional yeast to just about anything. Bulk bins at health food stores or whole foods are significantly cheaper than those little canisters-i go through a lot of it too. (Simple sauces, as a condiment, and of course on popcorn)

For something like an asian dish that you want a “seafood” or fishy flavor i like using crumbled toasted nori or those dulse flakes from eden foods. Which i am certain is nothing like any actual fish but i’m good with that :wink:

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Thanks! I don’t do a lot of Vietnamese cooking so I didn’t realize that fish sauce is usually added later on— I guess that makes sense because it is potent, and you’d want to taste it so you don’t add too much.

I’ve got some chickpea miso in the fridge, and will add it to the next cannelini bean dish I make if I don’t buy some white miso first.

Lots of great tips, thanks!

That makes a lot of sense. Huh, i don’t think I’ve heard that reasoning for their use before!

I agree that the Momofuku recipe is over sauced.

Yes, I was going to say Bragg’s liquid amino - closest thing I can think of to fish sauce. Very salty so don’t overdo it.

Woof, I don’t think Bragg’s is like fish sauce at all. I don’t use Bragg’s myself anyway because I think fermented soybean products (tamari in this case) are more digestible but it’s up to the OP to experiment with, I suppose.

Seriously if you don’t use nutritional yeast often it will be a game changer for you. I just love the flavor which is often described as similar to parmesan cheese -but it’s not really. Also great that just 2TB has about 8g protein, 3g fiber and B12, no sugar, no carbs, no salt.
Makes a fantastic addition to mushroom gravy, and often used for creamy vegan sauces for pasta.
I keep a mason jar shaker with big holes in the top on my table next to the salt and pepper grinders.

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Pasta with Earth Balance, white miso and nutritional yeast is one of my favorite comfort foods.

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The motivation for the original post was to make a vegan version of Andrea Nguyen’s butternut ginger congee, which uses fish sauce. Thank you for the miso suggestions— miso made the dish a success! I committed to miso after toying around with nutritional yeast flakes, miso, and Andrea Nguyen’s recipe for vegan fish sauce (nuoc mam chay) in a coconut curry soup and random leftovers.

  • Miso: I tempered the miso in hot soups (coconut curry, and a butternut squash and rice congee), and incorporated enough of the mixture back into the pots until the umami became present. The miso added richness and umami. Note that once the soup cooled, the extra umami was hard to taste!

  • Andrea Nguyen’s recipe for vegetarian fish sauce smells and tastes like kombu, and has the tongue feel you get when MSG is added to a dish. It tastes potent, but I had to add so much to the soups that it began to water them down before I could even taste their presence. Vegetarian fish sauce seems better suited to dipping sauces or lighter broths than what I was using. But it’s promising-- the ingredients (mushroom seasoning and kombu) are things I’ll keep around for future tweaks.

  • Nutritional yeast flakes didn’t match the flavors of the dishes I tested them with,
    but it’s something I’ll start keeping on the table top for seasoning dishes.

  • Fish sauce: not surprisingly, real fish sauce was the best of all worlds. Cheap, long shelf life, doesn’t add excess liquid, and doesn’t require an extra trip to the supermarket. Magical stuff. Unless I’m making it for a vegetarian audience again, I’ll continue to use it in butternut squash congee instead of miso.

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That’s some extensive testing!
Sounds like a tasty congee dish.
The nutritional yeast isn’t quite right with asian flavors somehow, but you’ll play around and see what works for you.
I keep using furikake on everything right now-but then again i have a new jar so next month when it’s gone i’ll be onto what’s next …!

I have five kinds in my cupboard right now. Because I never know what mood I’ll be in when it’s time to flavor my popcorn (or rice). :thinking:

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I’ve never tried to make vegan fish sauce, but have tried to add umami to vegetarian dishes, and, like you, found miso most helpful. Recently I’ve been loving ABEKO FOOD SERVICES Sendai Miso that I picked up from Berkeley Bowl.

To me, fish sauce has a distinctly sweet taste (as well as the umami, salt, and fishiness), and when used in complex dishes does not necessarily have a strong fishy note. I’d try adding some sugar, and possibly more salt or soy to the Andrea Nguyen preparation–it sounds a bit dilute to me. I don’t like sugar, but one of the things I found most helpful and most surprising from taking Kasma’s Thai cooking classes was how adding just the right amount of sugar could enhance, round out, and meld the flavors of a dish.

By the way, rather than the Chang roasted/fried brussels sprouts with fish sauce vinaigrette I’ve been making roasted brussels or cauliflower with garlic, olive oil, and fish sauce (maybe some chili flakes) as the pre-roast coating. It helps with browning and has been loved by those who have never even heard of fish sauce. Add a little acid (lemon or vinegar) just before serving.

Interesting, I’ll try that next time! For adding salt, I need to more carefully measure my finished sauce (I had spilled a bunch), and try to match the sodium level listed on a bottle of fish sauce.

I’m starting to have that revelation about the importance of sugar. I was shocked last week to realize that I needed to refill my container of sugar— I never bake, so it’s been slowly seeping into dinner.

Fish sauce helps with browning? Mind blown.

Easy: Dilute soy sauce to fish sauce color, add msg and salt.

Complicated: Make a tomato mushroom kombu broth. Add msg/salt/soy sauce.

“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold