(l-r) Pantai "AAA Grade," "Shrimp," "Squid," Tiparos Brand, "Flying Lion," and "Three Crabs"*
I have recently been conversing with my pal, Antonius, on the subject of fish sauce, and, figuring that it would serve him well to taste test a variety of sauces, I spent part of an afternoon, last week, cobbling together the assortment of sauces pictured above. **
I hope to write an extended piece on fish sauces at some point, but in the meantime I can share a few thoughts which seem particularly germane to the subject(s) at hand:
1) While they are not pictured above, the Tra Chang
, or "Weighing Scales," and "Golden Boy" brands of fish sauce are my favourite Thai fish sauces available in the U.S., and they are ocassionally available for sale at some of the Thai grocers in town. Both of these sauces are "premium" export grade, with a nice mellow flavour/aroma profile. Unfortunately, I haven't seen either one for sale in quite some time.
2) "Squid" is also a very good quality "premium" export grade Thai fish sauce, and one which is commonly found in the better Thai restaurant kitchens in the U.S. In comparison with the sauces mentioned immediately above, "Squid" has a more robust and rustic flavour/aroma profile. I've actually heard Thais refer to it as "grandma-style," or "old-fashioned."
3) Tiparos Brand fish sauce is probably the brand most commonly found in Thai restaurant kitchens in the U.S., and likely for the reason that, in addition to being relatively cheap and plentiful, it is the only commercial sauce available in a squeeze-bottle format.***
4) “Flying Lion" Vietnamese fish sauce is the brand that Kritsana Moungkeow at Sticky Rice
uses to prepare all of her Northern Thai specialties. Kritsana believes that this particular brand of sauce closely approximates the flavour and aroma of the fish sauces which she grew up with in Lampang Province, Northern Thailand.
5) An experienced palate can greatly differentiate between various brands of fish sauce, but preferences often seem to be highly subjective. For example: I personally prefer the flavour and aroma of "Squid" fish sauce to that of Tiparos Brand, especially after the sauces have been exposed to heat; when heated, I find that Tiparos Brand fish sauce takes on an overly pungent, almost acrid profile, but it hardly seems to present itself the same way to most people that I know.
As I have already shared with Antonius, the best way to get familiar with this oddly compelling substance is to test the waters with both feet, as it were. It is certainly cheap enough, with most bottles in the $2-4 range. And, even after it has been opened, I think you will find that the stuff seems to last forever.
* The space between the fourth and fifth bottle from the left separates Thai brands from Vietnamese brands of sauce, with the Thai brands remaining to the left.
** The l-r ordering of the sauces pictured loosely corresponds with my order of preference, but, while I generally prefer the Thai to the Vietnamese brands of sauce, I feel that it is very important to stick with sauces from the respective countries of origin when preparing Thai and Vietnamese foodstuffs in my own home.
*** Thai restaurant kitchens tend to put a premium on efficiency, and the squeeze-bottle format is very handy when tending to a busy wok station.