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Answer: No, fish sauce is not part of a vegan diet.
When it comes to the culinary world, names can very often be misleading. That’s because the name and ingredients sometimes don’t really add up. Unfortunately, fish sauce is exactly what you think it is. It’s a cooking condiment that comes from fish being salted and fermented for several months or even years. Some varieties may use krill as the primary ingredient, but that doesn’t make it any more vegan. And since it’s a popular ingredient (especially in Asian dishes), you often come across it in menus and recipes. But to set the record straight, the original fish sauce is made from marine life and is not vegan.
Health and nutrition
Fish sauce is an incredibly popular condiment, but it’s not all good news. Studies show that the fermentation process in preparing fish sauce makes it excessively rich in salt. Few other food condiments have as much sodium content as fish sauce. And there’s a decent study on how fish sauce can worsen the effects of gastric problems.
There are some proteins and traces of calcium present in it. But there are much better alternatives for getting the protein and calcium your body needs. Fish meat is famous for being a great source of Omega 3 fatty acids, and this is true. But fish sauce barely has any left because of the intensive fermentation process. Also, you can get your fair share of Omega 3 fatty acids from a variety of seeds. These include chia seeds, walnut, hemp seeds, flaxseeds, etc.
Environment and ethical issues
And it’s not just fish sauce. Any other food products that come from fish have consequences that go beyond us. Fish are known to experience emotions and exhibit forms of social bonding too. It’s common for people to show a lot of care and humanity towards more endearing and cute animals, but marine life is easy to disregard.
The fishing industry is another cause of concern. It has deep environmental impacts that cannot be undone, and the commercial sector is perhaps even more exploitative than other businesses. The habitat destruction is happening on an unprecedented scale, and “bycatch” destroys much more marine life. A supplier or manufacturer may claim ethical standards, but there are just too many loopholes in the industry.
Vegan Alternatives to Fish Sauce
The great thing about the vegan lifestyle is that there’s always an equally good, if not better, alternative to every food. And it’s no different with fish sauce. Typical substitutes for fish sauce include soy sauce, seaweed, coconut Aminos, mushroom & soy sauce broth, Tamari, etc. With the right balance of ingredients, one or more of these sauces can fill in for fish sauce whenever you cook.
The only problem here is that you might have to keep switching between sauces depending on the dish you prepare. No single one of these sauces captures the exact essence of fish sauce in every meal. Fish sauce is especially known for the unique umami flavor it puts into dishes. And products like soy or Worcestershire sauce come close but are not the same thing. To fix this, many vegans prepare their own ‘fish sauce’ straight from plant products.
Homemade vegan fish sauce
To make your very own vegan fish sauce, you just need the right combination of vegan ingredients. As mentioned above, a single sauce may not fully capture the taste of fish sauce. But the right combination of ingredients can make a pretty decent alternative. Here’s a simple but awesome recipe.
You’ll need Atlantic seaweed (dulse), dried shiitake, chickpea miso, Tamari, water, and salt.
Mix the seaweed and dried shiitake with water and some salt. This will create a rich liquid base for the sauce. By the way, the Atlantic seaweed is super rich in iodine, vitamins, phosphorus, and manganese. Next, collect the sauce base by running it through a mesh strainer. Press on the seaweed and mushrooms so that you get all the rich, liquid goodness. Finally, add the Tamari first, and then the chickpea misos as you stir the sauce. There you have it! Your own vegan fish sauce that tastes great and with twice the nutrition.