Korean fish sauce is a popular add-in to kimchi, as it speeds up the process of fermentation. Its taste is extremely salty and fishy, as one could assume from the name. A few drops of it can take dishes to the next level in terms of flavor.
It has been used for hundreds of years to add an extra kick to foods. Fish sauce has always been the most popular on areas by coasts, where fish are easily accessible.
Fish sauce is an essential for kimchi, but what if you don’t have any? There are plenty of sufficient substitutes for fish sauce in kimchi that will still bring out all the flavors you love.
Some of the best fish sauce replacements are: soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, oyster sauce, anchovy sauce, seaweed, broth, and liquid aminos. You can even make homemade fish sauce if you’re up for it.
What is in Korean Fish Sauce?
Usually, Korean fish sauce is made out of anchovies and sea salt. It does not have to be made with anchovies, though, and could include a number of other types of fish. Some other common fish that could be used in fish sauce are small shrimp or tuna.
When fish sauce is made, first liquid will be extracted from fish that have been fermented and salted. Over time, the sauce will ferment in barrels and turn to a deep brown color. During this process, it develops its pungent scent and taste.
Sometimes, sugar is added to the vats that fish sauce ferments in. Overall, it will be extremely salty and slightly sweet, with a possible hint of sourness from the fermentation process.
Why Do People Use Fish Sauce When Eating Kimchi?
The main purpose of fish sauce in kimchi is to quicken the process of fermentation, and to preserve the kimchi for longer periods of time. The bacteria of the anchovies (or other fish) helps accelerate the fermentation of the pickled cabbage.
Plus, the intense salty flavor goes perfectly with the cabbage. The saltiness of fish sauce balances the other flavors of kimchi wonderfully. In addition to kimchi, fish sauce could be used for soups and spring rolls.
Sometimes fish sauce is also a seasoning for fried rice, or an addition to marinades or dipping sauces. Adding a bit of fish sauce to a dip or soup can create a next-level flavor, but in these situations it’s important to only use a few drops because fish sauce is very salty.
What Can I Use Instead of Fish Sauce for Kimchi?
1. Oyster Sauce
Oyster sauce is another sauce derived from the ocean, so it has a similar flavor to fish sauce. It can be easily found at Asian grocery stores. Fish sauce and oyster sauce have many of the same basic ingredients, too.
To make both fish and oyster sauce, the fish are salted and/or fermented and liquid is extracted. This liquid is then mixed with an ingredient whose purpose is to thicken the sauce, like flour or starch. Then they are flavored with added salt or sugar.
2. Worcestershire Sauce
Worcestershire sauce is another close match to fish sauce. They do not have the same ingredients, but their flavors are still pretty similar. Many Korean recipes already use Worcestershire sauce, so it won’t feel out of place in your kimchi.
When using it as a replacement for fish sauce, you can do so at a one to one ratio. It’s an easy substitute and has a comparable taste.
3. Soy Sauce
Soy sauce is arguably the easiest substitute for fish sauce, as many people already have it in their kitchens. It is recommended to use light or regular soy sauce for kimchi, and not the dark variety. Dark soy sauce is more bitter and may be too much for this purpose.
When using soy sauce as a fish sauce replacement for kimchi, use three tablespoons of the soy sauce for every kilo of combined kimchi ingredients.
Soy Sauce + Rice Vinegar
You can experiment more with flavors by adding a splash of rice vinegar to your soy sauce. If you love the tangy element of fish sauce, adding extra ingredients to the soy sauce can make it more pungent.
Other than rice vinegar, you could try adding lime juice or sugar to the soy sauce and taste-testing to see what results you get. It’s a great makeshift fish sauce replacement especially because you can control how much and what flavor elements your sauce will have.
4. Anchovy Sauce
Anchovy Essence is a popular brand of anchovy sauce. Although it does share a main ingredient with fish sauce (anchovies), the two do not taste the same. However, many cooks like to use Anchovy Essence when they have run out of fish sauce.
The most notable difference is that Anchovy Essence is not as salty as fish sauce is. It still does have a strong flavor and aroma, so start with a little and add more if necessary. Along with kimchi, its taste is known to go well with pork and seafood.
The taste of seaweed has a similar fermented fishy taste to fish sauce, so it can be a viable substitute. Trying a sweet-smelling seaweed is most likely to get you the closest match to fish sauce, but the two do not taste exactly the same.
Mostly, this is because there are many different varieties of seaweed, but fish sauce is generally made the same. Each type of seaweed will have a different smell and taste, so it shouldn’t be your first choice. But, if you’re feeling adventurous, it can work.
If you aren’t particularly a fan of the fishy taste, try a broth of mushrooms and soy sauce. It has the flavor element of umami and is savory, but not as intensely salty. To make the broth, you’ll need shiitake mushrooms, water, and soy sauce.
First get three or four cups of water, three tablespoons of soy sauce, and dried shiitake mushrooms. Let it simmer for 20 minutes, and when using for kimchi instead of fish sauce, do so at a two to one ratio.
7. Liquid Aminos
Liquid aminos have a similar deep and salty taste to fish sauce, but don’t use any fish. This is another great vegan option, like the broth above. Liquid aminos are also a type of fermented protein, like fish sauce.
Fermented proteins offer a high amount of glutamic acid, which enhances flavors very well. Using liquid aminos instead of fish sauce will work seamlessly for basically any recipe, including kimchi.
8. Homemade Fish Sauce
If you prefer a DIY approach, you can make fish sauce at home. It won’t yield instant results, as fish sauce has to sit for a while before it will be tasty enough for consumption, but it is relatively easy to make your own.
How to Make Homemade Korean Fish Sauce for Kimchi
- 6 finely chopped cloves of garlic
- 3 tablespoons of coarse sea salt
- Two to three tablespoons of peppercorn
- 6 bay leaves
- 1 ½ pounds of whole fish (herring, smelt, etc)
- One to two cups of water
- Using a medium-sized bowl, mix together the sea salt and garlic cloves.
- Rinse the fish to make sure they are clean, then cut into pieces that are about one-half inch in size. If the fish aren’t cut small enough, the end product will be more pickled fish and not much sauce.
- Toss all pieces of the fish into the salt and garlic mixture. Then add the bay leaves and peppercorn. Next, place the mixture into a quart-sized mason jar.
- Pour water into the jar to fill it, but make sure you leave about an inch of room at the top. Your mixture will expand as it ferments.
- Make sure the jar is covered tightly and let it sit at room temperature for around three days, then move it to the fridge for between four and six weeks.
- After the six weeks have passed, strain the mixture to separate the solids and liquids. Throw out any solid parts, then put the sauce into glass bottles and store in the fridge for another four to six months.
For centuries, fish sauce has been a part of many cuisines, and one of the most notable recipes that fish sauce is needed for is kimchi. Using fish sauce in kimchi helps the fermentation process and also balances out the flavors.
If you don’t have any fish sauce, there are plenty of other alternatives that you can use instead which serve the same purpose in kimchi that fish sauce does.