Thai Fish Sauce Taste Test

I have recently done a taste test on seven Thai brands of fish sauce that, according to a private poll, are the easiest to find in the United States. Though there are many other brands in the US market, we’re going to focus on these Thai brands. This is because they are made specifically for Thai food, and Thai food is what this blog covers — well, most of the time. I’ll write about the non-Thai brands, which are intentionally excluded, in the sequel to this post.

Here’s the result.
First, a disclaimer: There are some standard criteria that are used to measure the quality of fish sauce. Good fish sauce generally contains at least 200 grams of sodium per liter, no artificial flavors or colorings (except for caramel or caramel color), no less than 9 grams of nitrogen per liter and a few other things (data from Burapha University). But since I’m not a scientist, what you get here is a highly subjective fish sauce taste test done in my kitchen, by me and my somewhat biased taste buds.
The question which serves as the only criterion in judging these brands is: Would I be satisfied with a meal of nothing but steamed jasmine rice mixed with a few glugs of this fish sauce? This kind of straightforward application is when the quality of a fish sauce matters the most and can be detected most pronouncedly.
Also, when I was a small kid1, I went through a brief phase when I wasn’t interested in eating anything but rice mixed with fish sauce (which, in retrospect, may explain a few things about me …) and so this, in a way, is a self-indulgent nostalgic trip down memory lane. Please allow me; my tongue was numb and I retained water for two days after the test. This is harder than it looks.
The results are as follows:

The top tier:

Golden Boy (Sadly, our Golden Boy, who would have been #7, decided to jump off the table to his death prior to the photo shoot. I’ll remember him — that’s not hard to do for his smell is still here.)
Ingredients: Anchovy, salt, sugar
Purchase price: $.60/milliliter

Tiparos (#4)
Ingredients: Water, anchovy extract, salt, sugar
Purchase price: $.28/milliliter

Tra Chang (Scale) (#3)
Ingredients: Anchovy, salt, sugar
Purchase price: $.33/milliliter

These three are excellent in terms of taste and aroma. The flavor is complex and mellow — salty with a caramel note with no weird aftertaste. You can detect the sweet, fishy (or should I say “oceanic”?) perfume in your mouth when you take it, uh, neat.

With Tra Chang boasting one-year aging and Golden Boy being such a prominent brand, I’m tempted to say they score a tad higher than Tiparos. But, honestly, the difference isn’t noticeable to me. All of these are award-winning brands that are well known and widely used in Thailand.

The middle tier

Squid (#2)
ingredients: Anchovy extract, salt, sugar
Purchase price: $.28/milliliter

Cock Brand (#6 — So many animals on the label … and none to do with fish sauce)
Ingredients: Anchovy, salt, sugar
Purchase price: $.59/milliliter

These two are pretty good. If better brands weren’t available, I would be perfectly happy using these two in all dishes including those in which fish sauce is the star of the show, e.g. nampla prik or jaew.

Somewhere between the middle and the bottom tiers
Oyster Brand (#1)
Ingredients: Anchovy extract, salt, sugar, caramel color, citric acid, acetic acid
Purchase price: $.36/milliliter

If Three Crabs wasn’t part of the mix, this one would be at the bottom — easily. The taste is one-dimensionally salty with a sharp acidic and mildly metallic aftertaste. I would use this in a curry or spicy stir-fry; I would be more reluctant to use it to make nampla prik or in a salad (yam) which relies on fish sauce and lime as the main flavoring ingredients. For what it’s worth, I didn’t enjoy a bowl of rice mixed with this brand of fish sauce.

The bottom tier
Three Crabs (#5)
Ingredients: Anchovy extract, water, salt, fructose, hydrolyzed vegetable protein
Purchase price: $.69/milliliter (the most expensive)

This brand confused me for a long time with its Vietnamese-heavy label. Without looking at the fine print, I would never have guessed that this is made in Thailand (but processed in Hong Kong, which may explain the price). The taste is one-dimensional; it’s salty and — that’s it. I will refrain from calling this fish sauce the worst. Instead, in a strained attempt to word this in the most diplomatic and kind way possible, I’ll say that the other six brands outperform this one (the implication is that there may be other Thai brands out there in the US market that are inferior to Three Crabs; I just haven’t found them).

Another thing I don’t dig about this brand: the opening is so wide that you can’t shake the sauce out in a glug-glug way; you can only pour it out of the bottle. Not a deal-breaker, but I don’t know, man … it’s just — weird.

Would I cook with this brand? Yes, but only if all other brands aren’t available.

That’s pretty much the scoop. The only thing left to say is that when not in use, the flip top of your fish sauce should be securely closed. Otherwise, any fish sauce that is stuck inside and around the little opening will crystallize and obstruct the glug-glug flow.

*Further reading on how fish sauce is made.

1 Apparently, some adults do it too. Check out this YouTube video showing a rice-fish sauce eating contest (forward to 1:52-2:20) in which contestants ate a whole pot of rice flavored with nothing else but fish sauce.

70 Responses to Thai Fish Sauce Taste Test

  1. Cliff July 3, 2012 at 12:08 am #

    A friend who served in the Peace Corps in Thailand highly recommended Three Crabs as the best she’d ever had. I thought so too, until your taste test. Guess I’ll have to try the others now…

    • delblue July 8, 2012 at 3:38 am #

      3 crabs brand changed about 5 years ago or so. It was different before. A lot better taste and not all the additives.

  2. door mount kit July 3, 2012 at 2:30 am #

    I never tried using fish sauce before. I don’t eat fish i think fish taste awful. But maybe i’ll try this thai fish sauce sometimes. I heard it makes recipes more delicious.

  3. cath July 3, 2012 at 10:16 am #

    Thank you for this rundown. We don’t get all brands here in Australia, but a few are on our shelves and now I know which to dig out.

    Curiously though, your Three Crabs brand is sold here by the local Vietnamese and they label this as their better quality sauce for dipping. There is another brand for cooking. It also sells for twice the price of other brands. Why I wonder do they think this is the bees knees of fish sauce when the Thais favour others?

  4. James July 3, 2012 at 12:27 pm #

    Wow, looking at the ingredient lists, I can see why Three Crabs doesn’t stand up to the others. If I remember correctly, Kasma Loha-unchit doesn’t like it either. Good report. Thanks.

  5. Admin July 3, 2012 at 12:34 pm #

    James – That’s correct. Kasma has explicitly stated that Three Crabs is not recommended.

  6. Anonymous July 3, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

    WTF does hydrolized vegetable protein do in fish sauce?!?!

  7. JT July 3, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

    You deserve an applause for intentionally excluding nonThai brands from the test. It’s about time people got it into their skulls that you can’t compare fish sauces made according to different Asian traditions – and YES Thai and Vietnamese fish sauces are DIFFERENT!

    Having said that, personally I would not have included Three Crabs in the test. It’s not made according to the Thai tradition as are the other brands represented here. Three Crabs is made in Thailand only because their factory (one of them?) is located in Thailand. Its target market is clearly Vietnamese (as you have surely noticed from your comment on the label).

  8. esther July 3, 2012 at 2:54 pm #

    Awesome! Thanks for this post. I use Tiparos after reading that chef David Chang recommends it. I don’t recall ever seeing Golden Boy in NYC but I probably wasn’t looking hard enough.

  9. Admin July 3, 2012 at 3:06 pm #

    JT – Thanks.
    Cath – JT’s comment may answer your question.

  10. Joel July 3, 2012 at 5:22 pm #

    “Hydrolized vegetable protein” is one of the many noms de plume (nom de cuisine?) of MSG. It may not be technically MSG, but it contains the same precursors. Of course, oyster and mushroom both do, too, but they’re a natural product, and hydrolized vegetable protein isn’t, so I would never trust it. Indeed, I would never trust any food product that has the “hydrol” term in it…it means it’s been severely chemically altered.

  11. danny6114 July 3, 2012 at 5:46 pm #

    Not having prior knowledge I bought 2 bottles of Golden Boy, (Amazon 2 pack) I’m relieved to find I got lucky and chose well. Thanks for the confirmation!

  12. Riya July 3, 2012 at 5:46 pm #

    I like the Oyster Brand. Now, in Thailand, we have the premium which is called Gold (even better) – Oyster Brand which I love.

  13. Admin July 3, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

    Joel – Thank you very much.

    Riya – One thing I’ve noticed is that fish sauce made by the same company and marketed under the same brand name for domestic use and that made for the international market can be different. Personally, I think this is the case with Oyster. I like Oyster as sold in Thailand.

    Thanks for the heads-up on the Gold version. I must seek it out!

  14. Anonymous July 3, 2012 at 6:40 pm #

    I’m currently working overseas in Southwest Asia and have had the chance to compare Squid brand, Oyster brand, and Tiparos. Tiparos has always been my go to, but I strongly prefer Oyster over Squid as a second choice; the Squid tasts like salt water. I wonder if the shops here get the domestic market versions rather than the international versions like you mention. Unlike in the US, for example, my bottle of Tiparos here is completely labled in Thai.

  15. Admin July 3, 2012 at 6:44 pm #

    Anon – Possible. I got an email from someone last night saying that Oyster brand in Thailand does not contain preservatives (citric acid, etc.) like the US version does, and it tastes better. I have yet to verify this. But if that’s indeed the case, I’m not surprised.

  16. Michael Babcock July 3, 2012 at 8:37 pm #

    There is a Squid Brand “Premium Fish Sauce” that we find in a couple places here in the San Francisco East Bay — it’s very good, though we (we being myself, Michael, & my wife, Kasma Loha-unchit) put it a bit below Golden Boy and Tra Chang (our favorites). We find Tiparos a little bit fishy for our taste. Tiparos is such a large company that I believe they’re buying fish sauce from all over and blending. We’ve visited the Golden Boy Factory and they make all of their fish sauce right on the premises. Nearly all of the fish sauces here in the U.S. include a little bit of sugar for flavoring and are not quite 100% “virgin” (for want of a better word) fish sauce; they are blended with a bit of lower level fish sauce. The reason is pricing: they have to compete with Tiparos, which was the first in the market here in the U.S. In Thailand I’ve sometimes seen a Golden Boy 100% fish sauce (no sugar, all “virgin”) that is really, really good. I wish they sold it here. I’m a little surprised that none of the Thai brands have tried to market a “gourmet” fish sauce such as the 100% Golden Boy.

  17. Admin July 3, 2012 at 8:56 pm #

    Michael – Thank you. I have a feeling that it’s just a matter of time before the premium Thai brands stop holding back and break into the US and European markets with their best products. I think, at least in the US, the local consumers have become much more educated about what to expect. Soon they will no longer be satisfied with these watered-down versions of premium brands.

  18. calliet July 3, 2012 at 10:46 pm #

    In Australia, I go with David Thompson’s recommended brand- it’s blow-your-socks off good.

  19. Admin July 3, 2012 at 10:50 pm #

    calliet – I wish that brand was widely available in the US. It’s not.

  20. Maya July 3, 2012 at 10:56 pm #

    This may seem like an idiotic question but do bear with me. What can I use as a vegetarian substitute? I understand that my dish will not be as authentic without, and I have heard that there is no real substitute. I have never tasted the original (except accidentally mixed in a curry, oops!), and I don’t know what flavors exactly it adds to the dish. Salty? Glutamate-rich? Oily? Just looking for something that contributes at least part of what the fish sauce would. Thanks!

  21. Admin July 3, 2012 at 11:06 pm #

    Maya – It’s true. There’s no real substitute, at least in my opinion. I have tried a brand of vegetarian “fish” sauce and wasn’t impressed. It’s nothing but thinner, lighter soy sauce. I personally believe that salt is the best fish sauce substitute in almost every case when it comes to Thai food. Soy sauce, in my opinion, ruins almost everything except for some stir-fries and some Chinese-influenced dishes. It’s best to use salt.

    However, in some cases such as a dipping sauce, salt is not an option. In these cases, one will need to settle for light soy sauce which the Thai call “white soy sauce (ซีอิ๊วขาว).” I’ve talked about it in this post.

  22. VB38 July 4, 2012 at 2:24 am #

    I hv tried practically all available brands (Made in Thailand) throughout the years and mostly, i find them to be too salty with a strong fishy smell (not in a pleasant way) and there hv been occasions that I threw the whole bottle away immediately after opening and sampling a teaspoon! But upon the recommendation of the Thai grocery shop owner, I tried Oyster and found it to be the best, which means least salty and least smelly …. well, that is until they start selling Mega Chef here in HK. No, I don’t work for Mega Chef nor hv anything to do with them in any business capacity but as an avid gourmet (by that, I mean GREEDY!), I highly recommend Mega Chef’s (limited) range of products. Their Nam Prik Pao is TO-DIE-FOR!!! So is their oyster sauce.

  23. Admin July 4, 2012 at 2:42 am #

    VB38 – That brand wasn’t included in the test because it’s not widely available in the US, but, yes, it is a good brand.

  24. Shu Han July 4, 2012 at 9:40 am #

    This is so helpful, I was so frustrated with cooks recommending three crabs, because jut by looking at the ingredients list you know it’s not a true unadulterated fish sauce. it may taste better tho the uninitiated because of the msg and additives tossed in to entice the tastebuds. Good one, I’m going to tweet this.

  25. Anonymous July 4, 2012 at 6:23 pm #

    Just in the nick of time. I was headed out to restock my asian pantry and wondered which brand of fish sauce to buy. I even searched your sight last week for recommendations. Then today, voila!! Thanks

  26. Marlene Jackson July 5, 2012 at 4:08 pm #

    More than a couple of Vietnamese food blogs that I read suggested Three Crabs brand (I’ve been using Tiparos) so I bought a bottle 3 weeks ago. I haven’t opened it, yet. They said Three Crabs brand is the best when making Nuoc Mam/Nuoc Nam. Now I’m curios. Hmmm… :).

    Thank you for the posting. By the way, I love your blog. I’m a fan.


  27. Admin July 5, 2012 at 4:14 pm #

    Marlene – I know what you mean. I’m testing Thai brands on how they perform in the making of Thai food. I’m sure Thai brands won’t be favored by Vietnamese cooks when it comes to Vietnamese dishes; they’re not made for that purpose. So if your goal is to make Vietnamese food, I’d use a Vietnamese brand.

  28. luvwtr July 5, 2012 at 5:46 pm #

    The age of Fish Sauce also seems to make a difference. I go through a large bottle of Golden Boy every couple of months. One time when I ran out I used a small bottle of Golden Boy that had been hiding in my cupboard for probably a couple of years. It had a much stronger and bolder flavor. I think this stuff must continue to age. I still have the little bottle tucked away as a science experiment.

  29. Anonymous July 6, 2012 at 8:40 pm #

    Has anyone heard of Red Boat? I read about it and they sell it on Amazon.

  30. Admin July 6, 2012 at 8:42 pm #

    Anon – Red Boat is not a Thai brand. We’ll discuss the non-Thai brands in the follow-up post.

  31. Anonymous July 7, 2012 at 7:24 am #

    Like noted in your article, all fish sauces contained combination of fish extract, water, salt, and sugar. However, because fish sauce is used in small amounts, the little flavor differences get lost among the other flavors of a dish. I noticed the differences among these sauces were negligible. Wannee.

  32. apostcardfromthailand July 9, 2012 at 1:29 am #

    Some of the brands state “anchovy” in their ingredients, others “anchovy essence”. I understand this reflects a similar difference between extra virgin olive oil and ordinary olive oil. The brands with “anchovy” are like the first pressing. The “anchovy essence” ones come from adding more salt after the first batch of fish sauce has been made from the anchovies. You’d therefore expect the ones made from “anchovy” to taste better, which leads me to my main point: Squid brand in Thailand (ปลาหมึก) tastes very good and many of my Thai friends consider it their favourite. It’s also almost invariably the brand Thai TV chefs use – but, of course, that could be from sponsorship. When I check the ingredients I see it’s made from 70% anchovies, 27% salt and 3% sugar. In other words, in Thailand it’s made from anchovies, but in America it’s apparently made from anchovy essence, which seems a little unfair on Americans.

  33. Admin July 9, 2012 at 2:00 am #

    apostcardfromthailand – The quality disparity between domestic fish sauce and exported fish sauce even under the same brand name has been noticed by many people.

  34. cantbelieveweate July 11, 2012 at 3:53 am #

    Now I can make a discerning selection…it says here in fine print… *Ü* My bottle of “3 Crabs” is different… I have “2 crabs and a shrimp” instead….hmmmm!

  35. Jennifer H. July 12, 2012 at 5:21 pm #

    I’ve grown up with Tiparos nam pla. I’m guessing it was the only brand sold on U.S. military bases 25-plus years ago, and that was all my parents could buy. I could never get my college roommates to knowingly put it on their foods. However, they also never figured out why the meals I cooked (or better yet, the authentic Thai meals cooked by my mom) tasted so delicious.

  36. Julie July 17, 2012 at 3:30 am #

    This is so interesting. I love fish sauce but actually tend to like those you’ve placed in the lower tiers and rarely ever use the ones in your top tiers. Not sure if this is because I’m Vietnamese. I’m not very familiar with Thai fish sauce and what the nuances in flavor profiles are between Thai and Vietnamese fish sauces — a topic I discussed with Andrea Nguyen in a side bar to a fish sauce piece I wrote a while back:

    (Full story here: )

    She prefers Three Crabs, I believe, and I tend to favor Flying Lion. I have also tried Red Boat, and they are clearly a high-quality fish sauce, with the only ingredients being anchovy and salt. The Vietnamese brands are not as widely available, due to the old embargo during the war, but this seems to be gradually changing.

    I love your little tidbit about eating just fish sauce and rice. 🙂 My sister and I love it so much that, even now, we sometimes steal a sip or two during meals, haha. 🙂

    Lastly, this is the first time I’ve commented, but I just wanted to say I love your blog and the thorough research and attention to details! And photos and recipes, of course.

  37. Admin July 17, 2012 at 4:40 am #

    Julie – Thank you. I think there’s a discernible difference between the taste of Thai and Vietnamese fish sauces just as there is a difference between Chinese and Japanese soy sauces. More on this in the sequel.

  38. Anonymous July 24, 2012 at 6:04 pm #

    Hi Leela, great post. I couldn’t find this elsewhere on the site, do you have a go to for buying Thai products here in Chicago?

  39. Admin July 24, 2012 at 10:59 pm #

    Anon – The most well-stocked place would be Golden Pacific. If they don’t have something, no other places in town do. Otherwise, Tai Nam, Broadway and Argyle (not as good as GP, but will do).

  40. Dorothy Explor'r August 15, 2012 at 5:10 pm #

    thank you for this. i’ve only cooked with 2, 4 and 5… and everyone i know swears by the the crab fish sauce. it’s interesting to see you rate it so low. as for 4, i didn’t think too fondly of it when i did use it… but perhaps i will have to pay it a visit again!

    p.s… this may just be my new fave blog! 🙂


  41. Zoe September 5, 2012 at 3:34 am #

    Dear Leela,
    Thank you so much for this great article.
    Would like your opinion re. Chinese oyster sauce vs Thai oyster sauce. Is Thai oyster sauce sweeter than Chinese oyster sauce? Can I use Thai oyster sauce for chinese cooking? Thanks.

    • Leela September 9, 2012 at 11:12 pm #

      I think Thai oyster sauce is a bit sweeter than Chinese oyster sauce as well. As for whether you can use Thai oyster sauce in Chinese dishes, knowing the difference, you may have to make a bit of an adjustment.

      • Zoe September 22, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

        Hi Leela
        Tks for your reply.
        What’s yr preferance – Thai or Chinese oyster sauce?
        As I’ve not use oyster sauce in cooking before, would like to buy either Thai or Chinese to try out and wondering which is more versatile?

        • Leela September 22, 2012 at 6:12 pm #

          I cook more Thai than Chinese, so I use a Thai brand.

    • Steven January 2, 2013 at 2:07 pm #

      My favorite brand of oyster sauce is Lee Kum Kee Premium. I was at my local Asian grocery store a little while back to pick up fish sauce, and I also wanted to buy oyster sauce since I was running out. Unfortunately it looked like they stopped carrying Lee Kum Kee so I just picked up a bottle of Sky Dragon. I didn’t realized it was from Thailand, and I found out that the flavor profile is quite different (sweeter, but also something else).

  42. Don September 26, 2012 at 11:34 am #

    I agree with everything you said. I have used 3 crabs and it was ok. Roland though – was awful. Golden boy is far and away the best as far as I am concerned. While Tra Chang was good when I first opened it – after 3 months, it becomes almost flavorless which was a huge disappointment to me. Golden boy not only tastes great but it keeps for a long time.

  43. Bharati Naik October 27, 2012 at 2:32 am #

    Wow! looking at the ingredient lists, I can see why Three Crabs doesn’t stand up to the others. If I remember correctly, Kasma Loha-unchit doesn’t like it either. Thanks for sharing

  44. AyDub October 31, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

    How long would you recommend to keep an open bottle of fish sauce? Can it keep indefinitely? I found contradicting information: a bottle of Squid fish sauce says that it’s OK if crystals form in the bottom. However, I believe A. Nguyen in her Vietnamese cookbook says to discard the sauce if there’s any crystallization. Thank you!

    • Leela November 1, 2012 at 9:58 pm #

      In theory, natural fish sauce that is made to meet the standards should last indefinitely. According to the announcement by Thailand’s Health Department (year 2000), 0.1 gram of naturally occurring salt crystallization per 1 liter of fish sauce is perfectly okay.

  45. Johnny January 28, 2013 at 11:31 am #

    I looked at the lineup photo and thought, “no golden boy!? What kind of Thai fish sauce list is this?”

    Then I read the plight of the Golden Boy bottle. I am sorry for your loss.

  46. James Morris February 6, 2013 at 6:57 pm #

    Wow, I’m very surprised you’ve put the 3 crabs at the bottom – I just bought a bottle on the advice of Andrea Nguyen, author of ‘Into the Vietnamese kitchen”. Now I don’t know what to think!?

    I had the squid brand before and if I’m honest I prefer the taste of the 3 crabs. I’ll try and find some of the others and compare.

    • Kyle Hildebrant February 17, 2014 at 7:53 pm #

      James — We did a taste test and Three Crabs was second to last in our blind tasting. Squid was the worst, but Three Crabs certainly had a terrible odor and taste. We tested 13 different brands. More here if interested:

  47. Mike February 12, 2013 at 4:21 pm #

    Not to be mean, but Three Crabs smells like ass. The cooks at the Thai restaurant I work with wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole.

    • Kyle Hildebrant February 17, 2014 at 7:54 pm #

      Agreed. It’s just horrid smelling. Good fish sauce should not smell rancid or rotten.

  48. Pakapong March 28, 2013 at 5:18 am #

    I think you should try Nam Pla Tra Petch(Diamond). I think Tra Petch is very delicious.

    Nam Pla Tra Petch is sold from gift store from east.Ex Cholburi and Rayong.

  49. Ray G. April 29, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

    3 Crabs is a terrible brand and a processed product with chemical ingredients. This reviewer nails it, there’s really no good reason to use this brand and the fact that certain Vietnamese recommend it means little. Some Americans swear by McDonald’s and that doesn’t make the latter filet mignon.

    Golden Boy is my top pic, its readily available here and a top quality product. I also mail-ordered the Vietnamese Red Boat and its sublime, probably best used for dipping because the volatile flavor components in such a fresh sauce don’t hold up that great to cooking, where Golden Boy is basically just as good.

  50. Kina King April 30, 2013 at 8:46 pm #

    Sorry to say, but 3 CRABS IS THE BEST!!! I’ve used them all…and there’s NO COMPARISION to the DELICIOUS blend, and it’s NOT JUST SALTY like many of those other brands…Has a DELICIOUS blend of flavor…All in all, it will not matter a ton, if you don’t know how to blend and balance all the other ingrediends in the dishes you are cooking! But I would pay the EXTRA for 3 CRABS ANYDAY and will not recommend the others to any of my friends!

    • Jay May 1, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

      @Kina King Care to explain to us in a less emotional and more scientific way, preferably with the caps lock off, why chemically enhanced fish sauce is superior to the rest?


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