Fish Sauce Is The Umami Key That's Missing From Your Tomato Sauce

Though it is the main ingredient, a tomato sauce made with just pureed tomatoes will be bland and unbalanced. It goes without saying, therefore, that you need to add aromatics like basil, oregano, garlic, and onion. It's also common to add a source of sweetness, whether that be sugar or carrots, to balance out the acidity. But while these components can result in a tasty tomato sauce, fish sauce can take the flavor to the next level by introducing an umami element.


Even if you have never cooked with fish sauce before, you might have tasted it without realizing it; the salty condiment is added to many Vietnamese, Thai, and Indonesian dishes. It's often compared to soy sauce, but instead of fermented soybeans, fish sauce is made with fish and shellfish and is aged in salt. This results in an umami-packed flavor that pairs particularly well with tomato sauce.

Why fish sauce can improve tomato sauce

Even when you follow your recipe to a 'T,' sometimes your tomato sauce can still end up tasting like there's a certain something missing. This is where fish sauce can come into play. Not only does it add some extra salt, which is often what a bland tomato sauce needs, but it also introduces glutamate. Glutamate is a flavor compound found in many fermented foods. It's responsible for creating the taste of umami, and the synthetic version (which contains salt as well) is monosodium glutamate better known as MSG. When you add fish sauce to tomato sauce, you're essentially adding a natural flavor enhancer.


You can't go wrong with any variety of fish sauce, but if you're not sure where to start, check the back of the bottle. Cookbook author Andrea Ngyun told Epicurious that she goes for a fish sauce that's lower in salt and sugar. She says these sauces are typically more fish-forward and therefore packed with more umami, which is typically what you'd want when adding fish sauce to tomato sauce.

The best substitute for fish sauce in tomato sauce

Fish sauce can easily be found in Asian grocery stores or in the international section of your local supermarket. If you can't seem to find any, the good news is you can substitute anchovies. Anchovies are one of the main ingredients in fish sauce, and even though they aren't fermented, the Umami Information Center explains that they do contain some glutamate, which means when you add it to tomato sauce, it has a similar effect.


When adding fish sauce to tomato sauce try a ratio of one tablespoon of fish sauce to one can of crushed tomatoes; if you're swapping in anchovies, you'll need more so go for about four to six filets. Don't worry about cutting them up, simply put them in the pan and mash them around with a spoon before adding tomatoes. By the time your sauce is finished, the filets will have melted away into your sauce, giving it that extra boost of umami you normally get from fish sauce.