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.

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