Nam Pla is a Thai fermented fish sauce, similar to Vietnamese nuoc-mom, but with less salt used. Like all fish sauces in Southeast Asia, it is a counterpart to garum of ancient Rome. Nam pla fish sauce is often said by Thai cooks to be the most important flavoring ingredient in Thai cooking.
The name nam pla means “fish water.” It is used widely in Thai cooking and it also a basic condiment. You will find it sitting on Thai tables, along with nam prik (see below) similar to how ketchup and mustard are found on the tables of American restaurants. It has a pungent fermented fish odor but is important if you want to get the right taste in your Thai dishes. It is used much like salt in West, or soy sauce in China.
Making of Nam Pla
Nam Pla [pronounced nahm bplah] can be made with fish from fresh or briny water, or from ocean fish. Most commercial nam pla is made from small ocean fish, as fresh-water fish are not as plentiful due to the effects of pollution and damming on the waterways of Southeast Asia. Anchovies are thought to make the best nam pla, but sardines, mackerel, herring, carp, lizard fish, or even mussels are used.
To make nam pla, fresh fish are rinsed and drained then mixed with salt. Generally, for nam pla, three parts fish are used with one part salt. The salted fish is then placed in large earthenware jars or wooden barrels which are lined with a layer of salt. Whatever type of container is used, there is a hole at the bottom for draining off the liquid of fermentation.
The fish is then topped with salt and weighed down with a bamboo mat or nylon net and rocks or other heavy items. This keeps the fish from floating in their own water, which will be extracted during the fermentation process. The vessel is then covered and left in the sun for many months, from eight to eighteen months. For large-scale commercial production, concrete tanks are used.
The general process is one of enzymatic hydrolysis. Enzymes are produced by various bacteria growing in the fermenting mixture. The type of bacteria are various and may vary depending on the type of fish used. The enzymes are proteolytic, meaning that they break down the bonds of larger proteins, producing simpler peptides. The flesh of the fish is thereby broken down, resulting in a very nutritious liquid with a pungent smell and strong, salty flavor that can be drained off and filtered. The salt content makes it difficult for the bacteria, so the process takes a very long time to complete.
Recommended Brands of Nam Pla Fish Sauce
Making genuine high-quality nam pla on a large-scale basis is very expensive, due to the time it takes. Therefore, a lot of shortcuts are taken to produce cheaper commercial brands. Many times, an artificial process of hydrolysis is used, in lieu of the slow fermentation process. For this, proteolytic enzymes are added to speed up the process of the hydrolysis that occurs due to the action of the bacteria. Pure enzymes are themselves quite expensive, but pineapple sap, which contains the proteolytic enzyme bromelain or papaya, with papain can be used instead. This speeds up the process a great deal and, although the resulting sauce is just as nutritious as traditional fish sauce, the aroma and flavor are sub-par and the color is not as golden brown. Other ingredients are often added to enhance the flavor and color, including MSG.
There are usually two ingredients listed in a traditionally produced fish sauce, anchovies or other fish, and salt. Sometimes, sugar may also be listed. When other colors, flavor, or preservative ingredients are listed, the product should not be considered a high-quality, premium nam pla. The “stinkiness” of the fish sauce may not necessarily tell you if it is of high quality since good fish sauces are allowed a period of time in the air to mellow out, so that although the smell and flavor are still quite pungent, it is not overwhelming. Below are two high-quality premium fish sauces.
Tra Chang brand Nam Pla is a good choice for premium fish sauce. It has a milder smell, not because it is not a true nam pla, but because time is taken to let the fish sauce “air out” in the sun, before bottling, in the traditional manner.
Another great choice is award-winning Golden Boy brand fish sauce. If you cannot find a high quality nam pla from Thailand, a good nuoc mam can generally be used in its place.
Nam Pla Prik
Prik means chile in Thai, and nam pla prik or nam prik is basically a Thai chile sauce made with chopped Thai red chiles (Prik kee noo, Prik Khee noo suan, etc.), fish sauce, dried shrimps, garlic, lime juice, tamarind, sugar, nuts, and sour fruits such as green mango. It is similar sambal of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Southern India.
Nam prik is the most common condiment in Thailand, similar to soy sauce in China and Japan. Keep in mind, however, that “nam prik” is a general name for any relish or sauce made with chiles.
Nam prik pao (pao [PAH-oo] means roasted) is a version of nam prik in which some of the ingredients, such as unpeeled garlic, shallots, and perhaps the nuts, are roasted in a heavy pan before being mixed and ground with the other ingredients.
Nam Pla Wan
Wan (whan) means “sweet” and name pla wan is a sweetened fish sauce use for dipping. It may also be spicy.
Nam Pla Ra
Nam pla ra is nam pla boiled with lemon grass and Kaffir (makrut) lime leaves, then strained to produce a sauce.
Other Fermented Fish Products Besides Nam Pla
Sauces made from fermented fish have been consumed in Thailand for thousands of years and there are many regional varieties as well as personal recipes. Nam pla, as well as buuduu, or “cloudy fish sauce” are known throughout Thailand. A distinguishing characteristic of nam pla is, unlike other fermented fish products, there is a manufacturing standard for the finished product.
There are also many other fermented fish products where the flesh of the fish is only partially fermented and the flesh retains its shape rather than being reduced to a liquid sauce. These may be dried in the dun or made into a paste. Examples are Kapi, Plaa-too-khem, Tai-pla, and Poo-kem. Another well-known fermented fish product is pla-ra, which uses a mixture of fresh-water fish and rice.
Other Southeast Asian Fish Sauces Similar to Nam Pla
Besides the aforementioned nuoc mam (nuoc mom) of Vietnam, many Asian countries have their own versions of fermented fish sauce, similar to Nam Pla, all of which are made by salting and fermenting fish. Here are the names of some other fish sauces and their corresponding country.
- Budu: Malaysia
- Patis: Phillipines
- Shottsuru: Japan
- Kecap ikan: Indonesia
Interestingly, what we call ketchup was actually descended from fish sauces and the word ketchup comes from the word kecap ikan. Worcestershire sauce is also a descendant of Southeast Asian fish sauce.
See also a overview of Thai food words.