All eyes are on Southeast Asia for culinary innovation. With many trendy ingredients from the region influencing menu development, fish sauce in particular stands out for its recent applications. Made from the liquid from salted, fermented fish, fish sauce is to Asia what olive oil is to the Mediterranean. Its umami flavor components make it a staple in numerous Asian countries, including Thailand (nam pla), Vietnam (nuoc nam), the Philippines (patis) and Japan (shottsuru). And not only are umami flavors strengthening their appeal with the American public (especially males age 18–24), but with chains like Umami Burger bringing the term to the masses, consumers are increasingly asking for umami flavors in their everyday eateries.
Not only is fish sauce in vogue (with menu mentions increasing 2.5% in two years, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor), but we’re also seeing a progression of the condiment on menus. Currently, fish sauces are trending in various ways in each restaurant classification, from mainstream chains to independents.
Let’s take a look.
In the mainstream: Kimchee
Kimchee is now considered mainstream, featured on menus at Top 500 chains like P.F. Chang’s, Yard House and Bareburger, and increasing menu mentions 7.6% over two years. The spicy-hot Korean condiment combines vegetables (such as cabbage, carrots, radishes or turnips), flavorings (such as garlic, ginger and green onions) and oftentimes small pieces of fish or fish sauce, which is then pickled and fermented. Though it’s traditionally used in soups and rice in Asian recipes, many mainstream chains have been featuring the pungent condiment atop burgers and in bowls, both familiar platforms. As consumers become more aware of kimchee, operators will start to utilize it in more ways on menus. Up next: kimchee-topped pizzas and sandwiches.
Among emerging chains: Nuoc cham
Nuoc cham is a Vietnamese condiment combining nuoc nam fish sauce with various seasonings, including red chilies, garlic, lime juice, ginger and sugar. Typically served as a dipping sauce with rolls or noodle dishes, nuoc cham is now being featured in new ways, particularly in the appetizer mealpart, where mentions have grown 8.3% over two years. The sauce is currently taking the spotlight on some emerging chain restaurant menus: Saigon Sisters, with three outposts in Chicago, serves nuoc cham with four lunch salads, a pork belly bao and crispy spring rolls.
The Vietnamese fish sauce still has room to develop in the emerging chain arena; we should expect to see more menu mentions initially in growing Asian and noodle concepts.
Among independents: Garum
Trending in independent restaurants is garum, the extremely pungent Roman sauce made by fermenting fish in a brine solution, then combining the liquid with various other flavorings such as oil, pepper, wine and spices. The Italian version of fish sauce, garum is unsurprisingly popular in trendy restaurants such as Cleveland’s Trentina. However, the sauce has begun to move into non-Italian restaurants, proving it’s an ingredient to watch with multifarious menu opportunities. In San Francisco, California-French restaurant Coi recently served the sauce atop poached and grilled lamb, while contemporary American restaurant State Bird Provisions recently menued red trout with toasted hazelnut-Mandarin-garum vinaigrette.
Next up: Caramel fish sauce
Caramel fish sauce is, predictably, the result of adding fish sauce to melting sugar. What was originally reserved solely as a drizzle or dipping sauce for Southeast Asian recipes, this technique is just now starting to develop onto the restaurant scene, featured in a number of recently opened hot spots. For now, we’re seeing fish caramel served as a sweet-savory drizzle atop vegetables like blistered shishito (The Watch Rooftop Kitchen & Spirits in Charleston, S.C.), Brussels sprouts (Wolf in Los Angeles) and sweet potatoes (Glass and Vine in Miami), all restaurants that opened within the last year.
There is abundant opportunity for fish caramel to move into chains, perhaps as a drizzle atop chicken and pork dishes for an added Asian-inspired twist. Fish caramel’s funky name alone will be a point of differentiation for chains to tout.