Thursday, November 14, 2013

Fish Sauces Compared

After encountering the Red Boat fish sauce I did some more reading to learn what I could about fish sauce. Vietworldkitchen is probably the single best source and I've linked her more useful posts below.
Viet Huong makes 3 crabs, 5 crabs and some other fish sauces. They have a different take on protein and what makes a fish sauce premium. 
Of course it's geared to reflect their fish sauce as best, but even still, it's a counterpoint to consider.

As °N  (dam according to Veitworldkitchen) is supposed to relate to the protein content of the fish sauce, it was revealing to look at the listed protein grams per tablespoon in the nutritional analysis panel.  Red Boat 40 ° showed 4g/tablespoon. The IHA & Megachef 3g/tablespoon, 3 crabs 2g/tablespoon and the unknown brand 60°N 1g/tablespoon. Pricing follows similarly. The higher the protein/tablespoon, the higher the price generally with 60°N not conforming. But I suspect its label is wrong.  I would expect a linear relationship between the protein/tablespoon and the dam number. Rounding rules for the nutritional panel might be to blame, as well as incorrect panel info.

Visiting a number of the Asian grocers I assembled 5 fish sauces to compare against each other, mostly based on recommendations from Vietworldkitchen. Every store carried 3 Crabs, and Red Boat. The IHA was only at Hong Phat, and Tay Do had the Megachef and the 60°N sauce.

The recipe for fish sauce is pretty simple. 3 parts fresh anchovies, 1 part salt. Some fish sauces have other ingredients, often a little sugar for example.

3 Crabs 

Ingredients: Anchovy Extract, Water, Salt Fructose and Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein
Sodium per Tablespoon: 1800 mg
Protein per Tablespoon: 2 grams

Tasted Straight
Strong, harsh a little fishy, has a forward strong flavor impact and a hint of old fish to the aroma and taste. It's a few flavor notes played loudly. My son loves the strength of this straight.

Nuoc cham
Punchy,  with the a sort of fish breath finish.  Disliked by my son on goi cuon. Liked best by second son and my wife. They liked the punch and strength. Wife commented this would be the fish sauce she'd like for pho.

Among my friends, the one who cooks with fish sauce the most and uses 3 Crabs, he picked this and the IHA as his favorite.  The others placed this in the middle of the pack.

Only tested with my family. My family zeroed in quickly on 3 Crabs sample as their preferred flavor. It's certainly the flavor they're most familiar with which I think was what made this popular.

I have to say I'm disappointed in the ingredients list as well representing more of a fabricated product rather than a simply fermented one. 3 Crabs is a product of Thailand and Hong Kong.

Red Boat 

Ingredients: Anchovy, Sea Salt
Sodium per Tablespoon: 1490 mg
Protein per Tablespoon: 4 grams

Tasted straight
Better, fuller, richer, parmesan cheese notes in the finish. Has a more mouth filling flavor with greater complexity. It's more of a harmony of flavors.  Son likes this too straight but prefers 3 crabs for the salt and strength impact.

Nuoc Cham
Subtle, but again mouth filling, lime finish. May need a little more fish sauce to balance better, but it's pretty close as it is.  Was OK to my second sone and wife. Wife commented on the fuller flavor but liked punch more from 3 Crabs.  This was my favorite

Among my friends, this was selected as best by most of them. And as second/third by the 3 Crabs fan depending how you score his tie for first.

My son who loves fish sauce picked this as his second favorite. I liked it best. The other three of my family scored it in fourth place. It is a different sort of fish sauce if you've been using one brand faithfully for years.

And it's one actually made in Phu Quoc in the traditional fashion as shown by the simple ingredients.


Ingredients:  Anchovy Fish, Salt, Water
Sodium per Tablespoon: 1730 mg
Protein per Tablespoon: 3 grams

IHA was liked pretty well.

Tasted Straight
IHA is very similar to Megachef, but preferred to the Megachef. Balanced, pleasing. Of all of them, this is the only one I could call light and delicate as Vietworldkitchen did of 3 Crabs brand.

Nuoc Cham
It's not assertive as 3 Crabs or 60N but more so than Megachef. Subtle, pleasant notes were observed in general, but it was just high-middle rated.

Generally scoring second among the family, it lacked the impact of 3 crabs or Red Boat, or certainly the  60°.

IHA has the ingredients right and is alleged to be from Phu Quoc, but I haven't been able to back up that claim.


Ingredients: Anchovy, Sea Salt, Sugar, Fructose
Sodium per Tablespoon: 1520 mg
Protein per Tablespoon: 3 grams

Tasted straight
Much like the IHA, it's well balanced. Perhaps a little fishier.

Nuoc Cham
Innocuous, certainly  enjoyable, but doesn't stand out in any way. Even less distinctive than the IHA.

Megachef struggled here against the richer flavors and variety of flavors. it wasn't disliked, it just didn't stand out again.

I'm thinking the added sugars with the slightly lower sodium didn't help here. It cut the impact too much. Megachef is a Thai brand.

T&T 60°N

I don't know the brand of this sauce, the label isn't clear that way. I bought it for the label of 60° N. It's made by T&T Co., LTD.

Ingredients: Fish Sauce, Water, Salt
Sodium per Tablespoon: 490 mg (I don't believe this, it's probably more like 1490)
Protein per Tablespoon: 1 gram

Tasted Straight
VERY STRONG, balance is off, strong aged cheese notes in the finish, a little fishy

Nuoc Cham
Darker than the others, stronger impact. Not disliked, but tended towards the bottom of every one's ranking except one, who scored it second. She liked the strength.

Again, not really disliked but scored at the bottom of everyone's rankings. It's just overly assertive.

This was the most expensive of the Fish Sauces I bought. The labeling is odd and the Nutritional Analysis is a typo or fiction. The ingredients list is similarly odd. Still, I'm inclined to believe it has a high °N based on the the intensity and similarities with Red Boat in the cheesy finish. But if it does have the high °N, then why is the Protein so low? The labeling is questionable and the overall flavor balance isn't there for me. Purported to be a product of Veit Nam.


3 Crabs was preferred by my family. Outside of my family, but including myself, the testers liked Red Boat. The testing seemed to show that if you've been using a particular brand for while, you'll have some tendency to prefer that in the testing.

I think the Red Boat is certainly worth trying. It has good flavor, is distinctive and of good quality.  I plan to keep it on hand and use it myself and in cooking because I like it best.  I'll need to keep 3 Crabs around for a while too to keep my family happy.

As always, you should try comparing some different brands and finding one you like best.

Other reading of some interest to the topic.


  1. Hi. I've been trying to find IHA fish sauce everywhere. Where did you find it?

  2. Hong Phat had it. They're an Asian grocer here in Salt Lake City.