A little fish sauce helps create big flavors

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Lynne Rossetto Kasper
Syndicated Columnist
Lynne Rossetto Kasper says fish sauce may not smell great when you take a whiff of it in the bottle, but it adds a magic flavor to many recipes.

Ah, fish sauce is the cook's cure-all. Take a sniff of fish sauce and you're convinced that you'll never let it pass your lips. Nothing matches the smell of old socks like this fermented, salt-fish concoction from Southeast Asia.

But magic lives in that bottle. Fish sauce, and a long list of other foods, contains umami, called the fifth taste. Consider it savory-ness. Magic is in what umami does for your food. With it other flavors open up, blossom and meld together. That's why knowing the umami trick is such a plus, especially for summer cooking, when you want a little effort to pay back big with a lot of good eating. The trick is a few drops of fish sauce in a dressing, a spoonful in a soup, a stew, a marinade or a rub, to make flavors better.

On the science side, umami is glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, also known as naturally occurring MSG, and it was first discovered in Japan in 1908.

Here's one way to put umami to work for you. A little inexpensive this-and-that (as in a lot of vegetables and a little meat if any) stretches a long way when you serve them with lettuce cups for rolling, and a dipping sauce for spice. Besides, finger food always engages people and gets conversations going.

Any protein or favorite vegetable can be the main event in these rolls. They are a hybrid of the Southeast Asian Hmong people's favorite meat or fish salad called Larb (see the book "Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America," University of Minnesota Press, 2009) and my own imaginings.

In spite of the lists, this is an easy dish. If you'd like, do the pickle and dipping sauce days ahead. The Sweet-Sour Dipping Sauce with Tomato recipe makes extra and it will keepin the fridge for three weeks and can become a dressing, a marinade, a dip and even a cold soup base.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper hosts "The Splendid Table," American Public Media's weekly national show. The program airs at 2 p.m. Sundays on KUOW-FM (94.9). Contact Kasper at www.splendidtable.org.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company


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