Fish Sauce

After wrapping the business of a coaching session last week, my client and I switched to the friendly banter channel.

Both of us passionate about Korean cuisine, (I spent ten days in Seoul back in 2009 and my tastebuds and guts were never so happy) our conversation quickly found its way to kimchi.

One of the most important ingredients in most kimchi recipes is fish sauce.

Fish sauce, for the uninitiated, is one of the Keys to the Kingdom of more than a few flavors in Vietnamese, Thai and, of course, Korean cookery.

It stinks of after-hours fishing piers – and adds amazing, happy-mouth goodness in ways that I cannot begin to describe…

And, because we didn’t really know what to do with it at the time, Danielle and I had our very first bottle of fish sauce for well over a decade.

It was older than our son by several years and, like him, moved from New Jersey to Upstate New York with us.

By the way, neither of us remembers what compelled us to buy that first bottle. (If I had to guess, it was the “Golden Boy” label. I’m a sucker for any brand design that might give M. C. Escher a headache!)

We do, however, recall the first deployment of fish sauce in our kitchen: a swirl of clueless inspiration led to the creation of a spicy seafood noodle dish. Danielle and Jody, her dearest old bestie, insisted I report out as close an approximation of a recipe as I could.

I have a well-earned reputation for never cooking the same thing twice, and my Beloved and her childhood pal clearly wanted this one recorded. (For the record, it was both delicious and a bit too complicated. For years after, I weaseled my way out of making it all that often. Then the interwebs came along and opened doors to more authentic, simpler recipes. But that dish I made still ranks up there in the tasty department!)

These days a bottle of fish sauce rarely lasts more than a couple of months in our house, finding its way into everything from Pho to marinades to savory fruit sauces.

I’ve come to think of fish sauce as the culinary equivalent of the stranger in our midst.

You know, the ones who look different, talk different, think different, have different beliefs and customs.


Like me and that bottle of fish sauce, we humans tend to hold differences at a distance, mysterious ingredients relegated to shelves or the back of the fridge.

On one hand that’s a natural, oh-so-human response to the unknown.

On the other hand, it’s illustrative of a lack of curiosity that either leads to, or flows from, choices to stick with the familiar.

One important downside of choices favoring the known is that they stifle learning and growth.

Personally, I’m of the opinion that there’s nothing inherently wrong with choosing comfort now and then, providing the choice is conscious. We all need rest and recovery time, and not every AFGO (Another F’ing Growth Opportunity) needs to be jumped on.

After all, autopilot is autopilot, and it’s just as easy to get caught in a trap of a mindless (and endless… and relentless…) diet of self-growth as it is to get locked into unconscious, avoidant “that’s just the way I am” heel-digging.

Thing is, the impact of leaving that fish sauce in the pantry all those years was that my family and I missed out on a decade of culinary adventure.

It took flying halfway around the globe and spending those ten days in Korea to wake up a snoozing side of my inner culinary mad scientist. Until that immersive experience, I didn’t know what I’d been missing…

Yeah, sometimes that’s just what it takes.

Sometimes though, noticing the presence of something different and intentionally activating one’s curiosity can open up worlds of discovery. And those discoveries can (and often do) lead to new levels of acceptance, appreciation and understanding.

And when that something is someone or, better yet, many different someones, the possible discoveries are endless.

Turns out we can learn from just about anything.

Fish sauce.