Literally, tuk trey (ទឹកត្រី in Khmer) means “fish water”. It is pronounced “tukatrei”.
It can be added to any dish during the cooking process or mixed with other seasonings in different ways depending on the local uses of each country. Fish sauce is eaten with fish, shellfish, poultry and all types of meat. In southern China, it is often used in soups and casseroles.
The different versions of fish sauce
Nuoc mâm, which is arguably the most famous of all fish sauces, is the essence of Vietnamese cuisine as is soy sauce for Chinese or olive oil for Italians. Nuoc mam also means “fish water”.
Fish sauce (and nuoc-mâm precisely) is extracted by pressing and filtering a brine, composed of 30 lb (15 kg) of salt per 200 lb (100 kg) of anchovy, which is macerated for 12 months in jars under the sun or in wooden barrels.
In Southeast Asia, fish sauce is often made from anchovies or cuttlefish, salt and water. Fish, water and salt are fermented in a warehouse in large wooden vats with a diameter of 8 to 12 feet (3 to 4 meters), for about a year.
For small quantities, earthenware pots are used. After being filled, they are buried for long periods, after which the exudate which accumulates at the surface and which constitutes the sauce is collected. In the processes carried out with large tanks, the fish is laid in layers, interspersed with coarse salt. The sauce that is thus obtained, is collected directly from the taps placed at the bottom of the tanks. From there, the sauce is collected into bottles, ready for consumption, or in small casks that are more appropriate for transport or retail sale. In the kitchen, it is used in moderation because it has a rather intense flavor.
The Vietnamese variety is called nuoc mâm, while Thai fish sauce is known as nam pla. In Myanmar (Burma), it is called ngan byar yay and in Laos, people know it as nam pa.
In Korea, where fish sauce is used as an essential ingredient for the preparation of the traditional kimchi recipe (made from fermented vegetables with spices), it is called aek jeot.
Nell’Isaan, the northeastern region of Thailand, on the border of Laos, produces another version, known as padaek, while the traditional fish sauce has the same name in Laos. In the Philippines, it is called patis and in Japan, it is shottsuru. Cambodians call it tuk trey.
What is the origin of fish sauce?
The fish sauce, produced in China for over 2000 years, has a Roman ancestor called garum. Garum was presented in solid or liquid form and was prepared with fish, fish entrails and salt. The ancient Romans added garum as a condiment to many dishes.
Some claim that it was similar to anchovy paste, others to salted anchovy brine, but most likely, during the various processes, both varieties could be produced and almost everyone in the Roman Empire had their own variants. The solid garum was nicknamed hallex and the liquid garum liquamen.
In today’s Italy, the Italian variant that comes closest to the Asian fish sauce is the cetara colatura di alici (anchovy water from Cetera), a transparent amber liquid sauce produced by a traditional process of maturing anchovies.
In Italy, as for Cambodian prahok or anchoïade, cachina is composed of dried anchovies, salted, fermented, with the head cut off, and chopped to make the mixture creamy. The mixture is used in various condiments as a flavor enhancer for various dishes such as pizza or bagna cauda.
The immediate association of the garum of Roman cuisine with Asian fish sauce goes back first to Marcus Gavus Apicius, a millionaire amateur of many pleasures and especially those of the table, member of the high society of the Roman Empire. Apicius is cited by Latin authors as a great lover of banquets and sophisticated dishes. In his cookbook of Roman cuisine, “The culinary art”, he proposes the use of garum, as a flavor enhancer in at least 25 different recipes, from meat to fish, vegetables to fruits. The idea of an anchovy sauce in a dessert may perhaps horrify the palate of some, but as the Romans said:
“De gustibus non est disputandum” (in terms of taste, there can be no argument)!
Garum was also a condiment used in Greek cuisine and generally in the cuisine of the Hellenic Mediterranean peoples. We find the first evidence of its use in Greek literary sources. A distant relative of garum is the fish murrī (or almorí): a fermented sauce that was already used in the Arab-Islamic cuisine.
The Arabs, who in the eighth century, founded the caliphates Abassid in Baghdad and Umayyad in Córdoba, created two types of garum and renamed it murri. Unlike the Roman ancestor, it is not only prepared with fish but also with cereals.
However, in order to obtain more information about it, you may refer to what Pliny the Elder, philosopher and Roman author tells us. This is what his book “Natural History” mentions:
“There is yet another kind of choice liquor,Garum. called garum, consisting of the guts of fish and the other parts that would otherwise be considered refuse; these are soaked in salt, so that garum is really liquor from the putrefaction of these matters. Once this used to be made from a fish that the Greeks called garos; they shewed that by fumigation with its burning head the after-birth was brought away.”
Thus, we learn that this liquamen was indeed a cerebrospinal fluid, a liquid, which, when it was well prepared with pieces of fish wastes, such as intestines, gills and blood soaked in salt, was very much appreciated.
Today, depending on the country, there are many varieties of fish sauce. More or less intense, some are made from raw fish, others from dried fish, some with a single variety of fish and others with several. One can also find rare varieties composed only of viscera or blood. Some fish sauces may be natural or more or less salty, with or without herbs and/or spices and spicy sauces.
Of course, Cambodian tuk trey is a Khmer condiment similar to nuoc mâm. But although very different from a traditional nuoc mâm, it is still called fish sauce.
It is more solid than liquid, based on hot peppers, garlic, and especially toasted peanuts. Tuk trey is a sweet and sour sauce, very popular in Cambodian recipes.
- 4 cloves garlic , chopped
- 4 red hot peppers , chopped
- 3 teaspoons roasted peanuts , coarsely chopped
- 2 limes , squeezed
- 7 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 4 tablespoons water
- In a mortar, pound the garlic, peppers, lime juice, sugar and water with a pestle to obtain a paste.
- Add the fish sauce and mix. Add the peanuts and mix well.
There are many variations of this sauce, that can be adjusted according to taste:
– By adding more fish sauce for a more salty version, or more water for the opposite.
– By adding more sugar for a sweeter version and more peppers for a spicier one.
– By adding more lime juice to accentuate the sour side.