nuoc mam – What is fish sauce? Green Chicken Coconut Curry

Respect the sauce…

What is fish sauce? How can I describe it? Well … I could tell you how it smells, but I really would rather not – this is a happy place where we only gush over dreamy fragrances. I have a distinct memory of when I bought my first bottle of nuoc mam many years ago. I popped open the top and took a deep whiff, as if I was smelling lavender or a Tahitian vanilla – let’s just say it wasn’t quite the same. The intensity of it slapped me in the face, demanding my full respect for who it was. I could hear it laughing at me, as if to say, “You better know who I am!” If you ever encounter a hysterical woman, or someone who has fallen and is unconscious – reach for the fish sauce. Sure, I can laugh about it now … and thank God I hadn’t naively taken a swig. Ever since that day I can’t pick up a bottle of fish sauce without remembering my initial thought: “This could be used as a weapon ! ” If you just poured a teaspoon under the car mat of your worst enemy, they would drive around in torment and ultimately wave the white flag or sell their car. Don’t worry, I only think things like this, and rarely even dare to say them out loud. By now you must be asking yourself, why would anyone want to cook with such a venom? Well, like my friend the anchovy, cooked fish sauce adds such a diverse and complex flavor to a dish that I would never consider leaving it out. Without it, Thai food would be like flat warm soda or a parade with no sound- boring. I don’t dare to say that I am any sort of an expert when it comes to Thai cooking, but I know enough to understand the balancing of flavors- sweet, spicy, salty, and sour. Just thinking about all of those flavors makes my mouth water.

Fish sauce is – as you would have guessed, fermented fish of all kinds- most commonly found to include anchovies. Since it’s fermented, it can stay outside the refrigerator and will last indefinitely. Buy a small bottle it will last you a long time since you use very little – unless of course you are planning to use it for “other” purposes – did I say that? Shame on me, sorry that one slipped out.

This is a quick and simple recipe for chicken curry.  You can make it as spicy as you like by adjusting the quantity of chilies, and if you like a heavier coconut flavor, just use whole coconut milk instead of the light.  The chicken cooks in minutes and comes out super tender and buttery underneath the blanket of spicy green curry sauce.  I love to add fresh vegetables for a crunch, and of course you can’t eat Thai food without  some basil, coriander,  and a squeeze of fresh lime.  

Green Chicken Coconut Curry
serves 4-6
1 Tablespoon peanut oil
¼ cup onion (about 2 oz) – thinly sliced
1 or 2 green Thai chilies- minced
2 pounds chicken breast- cut into 1inch pieces
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 Tablespoon of green curry powder
2 Tablespoons corn starch
1 13.6 oz can of light coconut milk
1 Tablespoons freshly grated ginger
1 Tablespoon of freshly grated lemongrass
2 Tablespoons of soy sauce
1 Tablespoon fish sauce (nuoc mam)
Zest of 1 lime
3 Tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
2-3 Tablespoons of green curry powder

Red pepper- julienned
Carrot- peeled and julienned
Fresh coriander- roughly chopped
Fresh basil- roughly chopped
Lime wedges

In a large bowl combine chicken pieces with salt, 1 Tablespoon of curry powder, and corn starch- toss to coat
Heat a large sauté pan or wok over medium heat – add in peanut oil
Sauté onions and chilies – about 2 minutes
Add in chicken and lightly brown- about 4 minutes
Add in coconut milk, ginger, lemongrass, soy sauce, fish sauce, lime zest, juice, and the remaining curry powder- stir to combine
Lower heat and gently simmer for 15 minutes
Serve warm over Jasmine rice
Garnish with fresh coriander, basil, carrots, red peppers, and lime wedges

8 comments… add one
  • Renee Fontes January 18, 2011, 11:45 pm

    So awesome picture, I want to taste the screen! I remember back at the catering kitchen all the fish sauce jokes…we used to threaten to put an open bottle in each others car.:)

  • She's Cookin' January 19, 2011, 5:08 am

    Love curries, but the last time I made green curry I used some green curry paste instead of powder and it kinda blew our minds – like when you accidently down a gob of wasabi! Do you have a favorite brand of fish sauce? Your styling and photos are over the top, Louise!

  • Quyen - Kitchen Runway January 19, 2011, 6:10 am

    You couldn't have said it better…definitely got to respect the fish sauce. =)

  • highplainsdrifters January 19, 2011, 2:25 pm

    My wife is fairly open minded, but there are some things that just aren't allowed in our fridge. I'm thinking about hiding one of those dorm fridges in the basement to stock with things like fish sauce, which i'd have to sneak up into the kitchen when she's not looking.

    the thing is, i know she's loved dishes cooked with it made in restaurants …

    but you know what they say: Trust is the most important component of any relationship. Because when the trust is gone, it's no find lying to each other any more!

  • blackcatx3 January 19, 2011, 4:23 pm

    LOL at your description of your first encounter with the stuff. Mine was about the same. It smells like what it is; it tastes like what it is. But it does lovely things when you add it to stuff. I sometimes use it as an enhancement in Western dishes.

  • Medifast Coupons January 19, 2011, 7:51 pm

    How entertainly descriptive! No one will ever look at fish sauce the same!

  • Kim January 21, 2011, 5:17 am

    Yum! Green curry is on my list to make SOON.

    Oh, and I was born with nuoc mam in my blood. I think all Vietnamese are. I put it on everything… even snuck a few droplets into the Thanksgiving stuffing this year. Husband didn't even notice! 😛


  • Lana January 23, 2011, 7:01 am

    You can get quite devious when you let your imagination go wild:)
    It's dangerous going through the life nose first:) I approached the subject very analytically and researched a lot before getting the courage to buy my first bottle of fish sauce. I still stay away, even though it's kinda growing on me.
    Your photos are gorgeous (nothing new there:). Every time I visit I promise myself that I would work harder on mine. You are such a good influence on your fellow-bloggers).
    Great seeing you again today!

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