The Wonderful, Pungent World of Asian Fermented Condiments (and Why You Should Visit)

SsamjangTo your friends, family, and co-workers, you’re the weird one for that crock of fermenting cabbage on your counter, the packets of kefir grains you’re always giving away as gifts, and the fact that you have a shovel designed specifically for digging kimchi fermentation holes in your backyard. In college, you had pinup posters of Sandor Katz and loved to binge drink not because you liked getting drunk but because you just really loved fermented beverages. You sometimes dash bottles of pickles to the grocery store floor in bitter rage if they were pickled with vinegar rather than lacto-fermented. You spike store bought yogurt with probiotic powder because it’s not tart enough for you. But worry not, my dear fermentation-obsessed reader, for you are in good company.

Everyone ferments. Throughout history, across cultures, continents, remote islands – everyone’s fermenting almost everything. Especially in Asian cuisine, which features an incredible panoply of pungent, living, complex sauces.

Let’s take a look at some of the best, most important, and most nutritious fermented condiments (plus, some really strange stuff) from that part of the world. When it’s available, I’ll provide any nutritional benefits. When it’s not, you can still count on these condiments conferring at least a few beneficial effects beyond delicious taste; foods don’t stick around so long unless there’s something to them (and yeah, I’m sure there are exceptions, but you get my point – traditional foods tend to be part of the tradition for a reason). Some of these will be familiar, some won’t. All are worth a taste, though.

(While you might recoil at the inclusion of soy-based condiments, recall that fermenting soy inactivates many of its antinutrients. Plus, these are just condiments to be used sparingly, not as full fledged food groups. No one’s drinking shot glasses of soy sauce. Well, one guy drank a quart once and almost died. Let’s not do that.)

Fish Sauce

Fish is already, well, fishy. And you’re telling me it’s a good idea to leave said fish out for up to a year packed in salt until it breaks down into a mushy consistency that gives off a clear liquid and then add that liquid to foods – foods that you then willingly put into your mouth, chew, swallow, and digest?

Oh yes.

Fish sauce isn’t really all that fishy, even.

We associate fish sauce nowadays with Southeast Asian cuisine, especially Vietnamese and Thai, but fermented fish sauce got its start in ancient Greece and Rome. There it was a daily staple that was added to almost everything and prized for its medicinal qualities. Since fish sauce was and is made using the entire fish – head, bones, guts, skin, and flesh – it’s going to be rich in B-vitamins and minerals.

The recipe hasn’t changed much over the years. Salt, fish, pressure, and time. No water, just pure unadulterated essence of fermented fish. Most fish sauce, having just those simple ingredients, doesn’t even have an “Asian flair” to it if you can get past the mental associations we have from smelling it in Vietnamese noodle houses. Experiment with it, and not just in Asian-style dishes. A tablespoon with some butternut squash mashed with butter? Added to scrambled eggs? Used with lime juice and sesame oil to marinate beef liver (okay, that’s a typically Asian-style recipe)? You’d be surprised at the condiment’s versatility.

The very best fish sauce I’ve had is Red Boat, which is getting some good press as of late and can be found in Asian grocers or purchased online. I’d highly recommend keeping a bottle around. You can get real fancy and buy Blis Barrel-Aged fish sauce, which they make by fermenting Red Boat fish sauce in Blis maple syrup barrels for another 17 months.

Any health benefits?

Fish sauce can scavenge free radicals in a test tube setting and displays antioxidant activity, with some varieties having greater activity than others. It might also be helpful as a marinade to reduce peroxidation and harmful byproducts while cooking. Plus, compounds isolated from fish sauce may have mild anti-hypertensive effects on rats.

Shrimp Paste

A vital, pungent (seriously, the stuff will clear a room) component of many Thai curries, the best shrimp paste is made from salted krill allowed to disintegrate into fermented mush. Lower quality paste is made from larger shrimp. It’s either sold as bottled wet paste or dried into cakes. The Thai-style cakes are best; store them unrefrigerated and flake off a few teaspoons to stir fry in coconut oil for the beginnings of a lovely sauce.

When you shop for shrimp paste, look out for added ingredients like sugar, MSG, or vegetable oils. You just want shrimp and salt. The best shrimp paste is purchased directly from shrimping villages in Southeast Asia, as this great piece makes quite clear, but (most of) you will have to settle for whatever they stock near you. Ordering shrimp paste online is iffy because you often can’t get a good look at the ingredients.

Any health benefits?

Shrimp paste contains an Mk-7 (the same as natto) vitamin K2-producing bacterium (which may explain why shrimp paste has been shown to prevent dental erosion and harden softened enamel caused by acidic food) as well as thousands upon thousands of mineral-and-chitosan-rich shrimp shells degraded for your full absorption.

Worcestershire Sauce

Not just a weird bottle wrapped in paper hiding in the back of the pantry, Worcestershire sauce is actually a legitimate fermented condiment with South Asian roots. Legend has it that the British governor of colonial Bengal, India, had British chemists reverse-engineer it based on a traditional sauce from Bengal. The distinguishing ingredient of Worcestershire sauce is fermented anchovies. And yes, even the stuff sold in regular grocery stores these days contains real fermented anchovies.

Any health benefits?

None documented.

Gochujang, Doenjang, and Cheonggukjang

Gochujang is a fermented paste made of chili peppers, soybeans, rice, and salt that’s frequently used in Korean cooking to adorn meat, vegetables, and rice dishes or flavor stews and soups. It’s spicy and a little sweet. Be sure to look for the gochujang (also called kochujang) with rice, not wheat, and watch out for additives like HFCS.

Traditional doenjang is just soybeans and salt – no chilies, no rice. It’s simple, it’s effective, it’s a strong foundation for a number of Korean dishes.

Like the last two, cheonggukjang is a fermented soy paste used in Korean cuisine. The distinguishing factor is the bacteria used to ferment it: Bacillus subtilis, the same species that makes natto, makes cheonggukjang, giving the paste an interesting taste that might take some getting used to.

Any health benefits?

Gochujang may help overweight adults shed visceral fat and improve their blood lipids (by lowering triglycerides and ApoB levels), improve insulin sensitivity in type 2 diabetics, and normalize glucose homeostasis in diabetic rats with 90% of their pancreases removed (what a life, huh?).

As for doenjang, though most studies use animals, those animals seem to benefit from doenjang. They lose visceral fat and improve their kidney disease. Of course, 10 grams of doenjang a day was enough to reduce visceral fat and body weight in overweight adults, too.

Little research exists on cheonggukjang, but the fact that it’s fermented using the natto bacteria means it has vitamin K2. Indeed, under optimal conditions, cheonggukjang can have almost four times as much K2 as natto. Another study actually compared the in vitro anti-cancer effects of cheonggukjang, natto, and shiodouchi (another soybean product fermented with Bacillus subtilis) and found that cheonggukjang was the most effective.

Soy Sauce

Yep, again with the soy. Real soy sauce is naturally brewed/fermented. Look out for the acid-hydrolyzed soy protein sauce masquerading as real soy sauce.

I’ve gotten in trouble for this before, so I’ll make it clear this time: if you are celiac or have a sensitivity to gluten, choose tamari-style soy sauce (and make sure it says “gluten-free,” as some types of tamari just use less wheat than normal soy sauce). For the rest of us, I don’t think a few dabs of soy sauce will hurt. I’m normally quite sensitive to large doses of gluten – I can get away with a crust or two of bread with butter and that’s it – and regular soy sauce doesn’t bother me. But, again, if you have a negative response to soy sauce, use gluten-free tamari instead.

Any health benefits?

review found that soy sauce improves digestion by increasing gastric juice secretion (good, since we typically have it with food), inhibits microbial growth, contains an anti-hypertensive component, displays anti-cancer qualities, and has “shoyuflavones” with anti-inflammatory effects. Soy sauce also contains polysaccharides that may increase iron absorption and reduce the symptoms of hay fever. Real, fermented soy sauce has an antioxidant profile easily outclassing red wine, with one study finding that a single meal containing soy sauce reduced oxidative stress, lowered diastolic blood pressure, and inhibited lipid peroxidation in adults.


Shiokara is a ferment of small pieces of marine creature meat swimming in the salted, fermented, pulverized viscera of the animal. Cuttlefish is the most common animal used for shiokara, but everything from sea urchin to oyster to salmon to tuna to sea cucumber can work. If it swims – or even just hangs out on rock or ship hull somewhere underwater – and it’s edible, they’ve probably used it for shiokara.

You might find shiokara on the shelf at your local Asian grocery, but I’d avoid those or look very carefully at the ingredients list. They often contain additives, sweeteners, and MSG. You’re better off getting shiokara at a good Japanese restaurant or making your own.

Any health benefits?

None documented, but fish innards are pretty nutrient-dense if you can stomach them.

So, anyone hungry? I know I am. I suggest you take a trip down to your local Asian grocery, peruse the aisles, comb the ingredients lists, and try out some new fermented sauces.

What’s your favorite Asian fermented sauce? Let me know in the comment section!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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