Soy Sauce vs Fish Sauce: What’s the Difference?

We Reveal the Similarities and Differences Between Soy Sauce and Fish Sauce

Acacia Crossley
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There is a range of Chinese sauces that have left a lasting impact on South East Asian cuisine, but the most well-known are soy sauce and fish sauce.

A variety of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese dishes will require you to use fish sauce or soy sauce. However, to elevate your dish, you should learn the difference between the two sauces. 

As their names would suggest, the biggest thing that sets soy sauce and fish sauce apart is their base ingredients. Soy sauce is made using fermented soybeans, while fish sauce is made using fermented fish. 


What is Soy Sauce?

Soy sauce remains one of the most universally used sauces in the world. The effects of soy sauce on Asian cuisine have had a knock-on effect throughout the world, with western countries recreating their favourite Chinese dishes in their own kitchens. 

As its name would suggest, soy sauce is heavily reliant on one main ingredient: Soybeans.

Soybeans

Traditionally, soybeans were left to ferment for months, giving enough time for the added wheat grain mould cultures to develop and brew in a brine. Then the mixture would be pressed to separate the resulting liquid from the leftover soybeans and heated to kill any active moulds. 


When the soybeans are left to ferment, their natural nuttiness develops into an intense umami flavour. The natural nuttiness of the beans is made sweeter with added sugar, leaving a little left-over bitterness in the soy sauce. However, it is usually overpowered by the umami taste. 

The beans absorb a lot of the brine’s saltiness while being processed, making soy sauce extremely salty. An umami and salty harmony is the predominant flavour of soy sauce.

Soy sauce originated in China more than 2,000 years ago. Since then, other countries worldwide have developed their own take on it. The standard Chinese soy sauce is usually a rich brown colour with a very thin consistency, perfect for adding to your dish or using as a dipping sauce.

Should You Use Dark or Light Soy Sauce?

Light soy sauce is one of the saltier soy sauce variations, making it better suited for sushi or as a condiment. Dark soy sauce is on the sweeter side and thicker, making it better for meat marinades or stir-fries. 

What is Fish Sauce?

There are a few debates about where fish sauce was first invented. Some argue that it was the Greeks that invented fish sauce, other appoint ancient Chinese chefs as the geniuses behind the sauce.

No matter who you believe invented fish sauce, the sauce that most know as fish sauce is most commonly used in cuisines across South East Asia. Even if you have never used fish sauce in your own cooking, most pad Thais, stir-fries, and some Chinese and Japanese salad dishes will include fish sauce. 

Fish sauce gets the vast majority of its flavour from, you guessed it: fish! In some cases, krill (small crustaceans) will be used instead. Small fish, like anchovies, are covered in salt or submerged in a salty mixture, then the fish are left to ferment untouched for months or sometimes years. 

Anchovies for Fish Sauce

As the fish ferment, the bacteria in the fish break the main body apart until all that is left is a pungent liquid: fish sauce. 

Little else will be added to the sauce apart from some sweetener to help balance out the naturally overwhelming umami flavour. But for the most part, fish sauce remains highly salty due to the salt used to prep the fish for fermenting.

The umami flavour is just as prominent, developing from the typical fishy flavour of the anchovies or krill.

Can Fish Sauce Be Vegan?

Because fish sauce uses seafood as its main ingredient, it is unsafe for vegetarians or vegans. However, mixing soy sauce with dried seaweed or mushrooms can create a similar flavour combination in your dish. 

Differences Between Soy Sauce and Fish Sauce

Though they are mainly used in the same types of cuisine, there are some big differences between soy sauce and fish sauce:

  • Base Ingredient – The most apparent difference between soy sauce and fish sauce is their base ingredients which give each of the sauces its own unique taste. Soy sauce mainly uses soy beans mixed with some wheat grain. Fish sauce relies on small fermented fish. 
  • A Fishy Odour – For the most part, soy sauce does not have much of a smell. Fish sauce on the other hand, smells very fishy. Not enough to leave your kitchen smelling like the ocean, but pungent enough to make your eyes water. 
  • Diet Friendly – Soy sauce is suitable for both vegetarians and vegans as soybeans are a naturally growing bean. However, fish sauce obviously uses fish to develop its intense umami flavour, making it unsuitable for vegans or vegetarians. Luckily, in most cases, soy sauce can be used as a substitute for fish sauce. 

Similarities Between Soy Sauce and Fish Sauce

There are many instances where recipes will call for either fish sauce or soy sauce because of their similarities. Such as: 

  • Sauce Thickness – Though there are different types of soy sauce, the most commonly used soy sauce is very thin. Likewise, fish sauce is just as thin as soy sauce. This can make it a little too easy to add too much of either sauce to your dish without realizing it. 
  • Salty Umami – Soy sauce and fish sauce serve the same purpose in most recipes – to add a complex umami flavour with little effort. Accompanying the umami is a strong saltiness that cannot be ignored. 
  • Place Of Origin – Despite the origin of fish sauce being debated, it is still mostly associated with China and neighbouring South East Asian countries while soy sauce is as Chinese as the Chinese New Year holiday. Both sauces play important roles in Chinese cuisine. 

Soy Sauce vs Fish Sauce: Which Wins?

If you were forced to pick and could only live with either soy sauce or fish sauce, which would you pick? It’s soy sauce vs fish sauce, but who wins:

Do You Prefer Soy Sauce or Fish Sauce?

Soy Sauce and Fish Sauce FAQs

Do you still have questions about fish sauce, soy sauce and where they differ? Then check these FAQs out:

When Should You Use Soy Sauce?

Soy sauce works great on its own as a dip. It is also helpful for adding a subtle salty flavour to the base of sauces. It can be used as the main liquid base for some dips.

When Should You Use Fish Sauce?

Fish sauce is very salty, so it should be used sparingly to add an umami-salty flavour to marinades and dips. It should not be used as the primary ingredient.

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