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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46 thoughts on “The Wonderful, Pungent World of Asian Fermented Condiments (and Why You Should Visit)”

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  1. In Alaska, many natives favorite food is ‘fermented seal flipper’. The big joke was to get us to eat a bite of this stuff and then watch us just about puke. Never saw a ‘lower 48’ person go back for seconds.

  2. Soy sauce is a huge favorite of mine. There’s nothing like a big bowl of jasmine rice with soy sauce and some meat after a heavy deadlift session to fill up those glycogen stores!

    1. Sorry, but post-workout high-carb meals are not meant to serve as a tool to fill-up the glycogen stores (timing is not important here, unless you have another workout in, say, 2 hours), but rather to help facilitate protein uptake 🙂 Just FYI.

      1. Okay I’ll bite.

        Care to share some references in regards to carbs and protein uptake?

      2. Maybe they’re not, but I love ’em and I’m getting stronger while maintaining low body fat so whatever they do or don’t do, it works..

      3. sorry.
        carbohydrates do more then one thing.
        The love affair with isolated chemistry and protein completely skews reality for most.
        Simple carbohydrates that digest rapidly and do not cause acid based inflammation like that of a protein which will always be highly acidic and contain endotoxin, the carbohydrate is exactly what is required by the body after work out.
        The body requires amino acids not proteins, proteins are not rapidly usable as are plant based aminos as they require breaking down increasing acid waste load on a body that is already broken down from stress.
        Go get in a fight with a great ape and tell him after words he should have some protein, absolute groundless nonsense.
        Flesh meat is junk food, milk protein is plastic and you are being sold a lemon but if only you were because a lemon would be helpful.

  3. Great post! I’m excited to try the ones that are new to me.

    I also really like the idea that while reading this post might gross out a large portion of the SAD population, most of the primal community will finish reading this feeling as hungry as I am right now!

  4. Can anyone recommend a brand of gochujang? This is the first I’m hearing of any of the “-jang” sauces.

    1. Ask the staff at any Korean grocery and they will tell you which one they like best – there are many. I wouldn’t go by brand – they are all good. Just try to find one that doesn’t contain corn syrup – THAT’s the hard part.

      1. Ditto that. It’s very difficult to find one that doesn’t have corn syrup in it. I’m sure there has to be one out there though. Will have to look next time I’m in the Korean market 😀

  5. What’s a good alternative (besides soy sauce) if I have a seafood allergy but want to add more fermentation to my diet? I’m allergic to shellfish, and tend to be pretty gunshy about fish sauces because I’ve broken out from them before.

    1. Kimchee (make sure it has no fish sauce, some do, some don’t), various krauts (check the health food stores for good ones), kombucha beverages, kefir, and I think coconut aminos as well.

      Get the book “Wild Fermentation” by Sandor Katz- it’s fun to read, educational, and has great recipes.

    2. I don’t know whether it has any health benefits, but Coconut Aminos is a good substitute for soy sauce. It’s mellower and less salty.

  6. How about kombucha? Been making my own for a few months now. Saves wicked amounts of money!

  7. So, you talk about acid-hydrolyzed soy protein sauce masquerading as real soy sauce. What brand of soy sauce do you use and what brands are soy protein sauce?

  8. A lot of Worcestershire sauces sold at the grocery store are soy-based fakes. Read the labels. Lea and Perrins is the real thing.

    My local Wegman’s carries Red Boat fish sauce. It has no sugar and it really does taste better than other brands I’ve tried.

    1. Pretty sure they switched to high fructose corn syrup. Not cool.

      1. Just checked their website.

        Ingredients: distilled white vinegar, molases, water, sugar, onions, anchovies, salt, garlic, cloves, tamarind extract, natural flavorings, chili pepper extract. Contains anchovies.

        Of course, “natural flavorings” could be worrisome, but the sugar is just sugar and misspelled molasses.

  9. The legend has it that two Brits tried to re-create a fish sauce they’d had while serving in India. The recipe was a flop; but they left some in the barrel and tried it again a year later. That became the original worcestershire sauce. Those two Brits were named Lea and Perrins.

  10. Shiokara is the only one of these I haven’t tried or made – I wasn’t even aware of it ’till now.
    To the ocean! Where’s my net?

  11. I grew up eating fermented spicy bean curd (foo-yu ??) in juk (rice porridge). Very tasty and it comes in cubes in a jar submerged in oil or brine.

  12. Im off to South Korea in 2 days! Ill make sure to stock up on some efermented yumminess. Hopefully, I wont die on kimchi overdose!

  13. Thank you for blessing soy sauce 🙂 I do still eat it and have felt the same way. It is so flavorful and there are so many asian dishes that need it to fast authentic.

  14. I love my Squid brand fish sauce. And my Spiral brand Tamari. Have you noticed how nice belacan (shrimp paste) sometimes has that lovely deep purple colour? Gorgeous.

    So next week are you going to do some of those wonderful homemade sambal type condiments they sell at the local Asian foods store? The ones that seem to consist mostly of fish sauce, dried seafood and chillies?

  15. For “jang” newbies, here are the top two dishes made with them:

    With Kochujang – make “Mae-un-tang” (literally “spicy soup”). Maangchi dot com has a good recipe for this spicy fish soup. I make it at home when Costco has fresh snapper. But you can use frozen fish if you don’t want to deal with the bones, skin, scales, etc. (It won’t taste as good though.)

    If you like spice, Kochujang is also good as a dip for veggies such as cucumbers and carrots.

    With Doenjang (toenjang) – make soup or stew. Doenjang is like more earthy, lumpy miso. If you think of it that way it may be friendlier to you. Doenjang soup or stew is a favorite home-style comfort food of Koreans. Just boil water and add some of the paste to your taste (mainly judge the saltiness), then add vegetables like squash, potato, onion, asian radish, and dried shiitake mushroom.

    Next time you get Korean BBQ, ask for Maeuntang, or Doenjang stew (Doenjang Chi-gae) to go with your very primal meat meal. The waitresses will think you are just back from Seoul!

  16. Shrimp paste in scrambled eggs….oh yes. Started doing it after watching them make the eggs in jiro dreams of sushi. Very good.

    I just ate at the Pit in Raleigh, and this post STILL made me hungry!

  17. Is vegemite considered a fermented product? Its is made out of left over brewers yeast if I recall correctly?

  18. Just a question: when soy sauce is heated, does it still have the health benefits? I thought at least the probiotics from fermented foods, such as soy sauce, are destroyed by heat.

  19. The aritcle mistakenly focuses on Cheonggukjang being unique because it is fermented with bacillus subtilis. Doenjang and many other products are also fermented with the same bacteria from dried rice grass.

  20. I heat up a bag of pine nuts(a lot) and a little bit of pecans with sesame oil and then add gochujang and daenjang. Low heat. I usually always use evoo but pure sesame oil is a healthier and tastier combo with the nuts and jang. Store it in the fridge. I eat it everyday. I dab it on top of my broccoli and cauliflower with a boiled egg. I eat it with grain rice and spinach. Pretty much with everything. You’ll definitely lose weight and have more energy. And it tastes delicious. You can give it away as gifts too! The color is beautiful. You should be able to see the pine nuts so use a lot of pine nuts!

    From a Korean American girl who was taught this recipe by a native older Korean grandma who is thin, healthy, and STRONG! But she adds garlic, ground meat, and sesame seed.

  21. Although I don’t see K2 as a benefit of Fish Sauch ‘Nuoc Mam’, because it’s fermented I’d guess it should be high in K2 .. any thoughts anyone? I can’t stand natto or any soy product…

  22. The Korean grocery store in Houston sells locally made Cheonggukjang (seems very fresh). It’s not sticky, gooey like natto, so does it still have k2 benefits like natto? Thx!

    1. Minny, see the paragraph just before the heading Soy Sauce (in the article). I’m curious, since I haven’t tried any of these fermented beans, how is the taste of Cheonggukjang?

  23. Do these fermented foods that come in glass containers and are kept in stores at room temperature really have live bacteria from fermentation? Wouldn’t they be heated or pasteurized for preservation in some way?

  24. I LOVE fish sauce! Is IS pleasantly addictive! I keep several brands on hand (Red Boat, Thai Kitchens, etc.) Ihave converted a few people in my life to this MAGICAL condiment that smells like Hell and tasted like Heaven. ‘Never know when one will need a drink of it.