Dear Mark: When Nature is Stressful and How to Use Fish Sauce

Inline_Dear_Mark_07.24.17For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering a couple questions from readers. First, is nature always relaxing and blissful? Or are there instances where being in nature is far more stressful than being indoors? Why, and what should we do about it? Second, how do I use fish sauce, and how would a parent use fish sauce to get picky kids to try (and like) new foods?

Let’s go:

Kathy makes an important point:

Don’t get me wrong, I love nature. But a walk in the New England woods at this time of the year is downright stressful. Between the tics, gnats, mosquitos, deer flys, and unrelenting humidity, I am content to be in my comfy, air conditioned, bugless home. Think I’ll just work on my strength exercises inside today.

I grew up in New England, so I know exactly what you’re talking about. Nature is beautiful and terrible.

Where I live now, it’s beautiful. California nature is rather pleasant. It’s rarely hot or cold enough to threaten your life or even make you very uncomfortable. You can hike year round. Humidity is low; it’s more of a dry heat. The bugs are there, but they’re not intrusive and oppressive. Lyme disease rates among CA ticks are way lower than New England ticks.

Modern technology is really quite amazing. It can be a crutch, but it can also be a relief from unrelenting misery. Kathy realizes this. We’d be stupid to give that up.

People living 20,000 years ago didn’t have the option to avoid the unpleasantness of nature. It was an unavoidable aspect of everyday life. It was all they knew. It was bearable because it had to be. There wasn’t anything else.

People with smartphones and desk jobs have options. Venturing into nature is a choice, and when they’re out there in the thick of it getting bit by mosquitos and scratched by thorns and beset by heat, it’s harder because they know what they’re missing. They can compare it to the creature comforts of modern living. There’s always an out—cutting the hike short and getting back in the car.

This also means that personal preferences and capacities can determine whether something qualifies as a stressor. If you can’t swim, a “nice relaxing dip in the Pacific Ocean” becomes a life or death struggle for survival. You won’t be chilled out and blissful, GABA flowing through your synapses. You’ll have adrenaline coursing through your veins, your nervous system on red alert.

No one wants to drown, but are we missing something by using modern comforts to avoid the misery of a muggy Massachusetts forest? That kind of “manageable misery,” where it’s not killing us, just making us struggle a bit?

Maybe. What do you guys think?

I think it’s all true. Completely avoiding the dirty, unpleasant side of nature is bad, but so too is staying inside where it’s safe and clean and predictable. You need both. You need to strike a balance between chaos and order. And it’s not only a struggle between being indoors and outdoors. I remember walking through Muir Woods. It’s gorgeous, but it’s all so carefully curated—the paths, the wood walkways, the barriers. It feels like a museum exhibit. Not real.

Chaos—enough to keep things interesting and new and stimulating and novel. Order—enough that you can manage the chaos without it growing dull.

That’s the trick, and it applies to everything.

Angelica W. asked:

How are you using the fish sauce to introduce new foods? Can you give an example? I love fish sauce and am curious how it’s used outside of asian recipes and especially how to use it to entice kids to new tastes?

Here’s a perfect example from a study in 2008. Researchers gave half the subjects soup flavored with MSG (monosodium glutamate, an umami-booster similar to fish sauce) and half soup without MSG. Those who got soup with MSG found it more savory and pleasant than those who got it without MSG. After, both groups then ate soup without MSG. The group that had originally received MSG soup found the MSG-less soup more pleasant than the group who hadn’t had any MSG. Thanks to the glutamate, they’d learned to like the flavors of the soup on their own merits.

You don’t have to conduct a trial with controls and placebos. Just add a few dashes of fish sauce to the next savory meal and continue doing so. Try it on a food that your child hasn’t cared for in the past to see if that changes. As for dosage, less is more. Get it to where you enjoy the flavor. That’s probably the place your kid wants it, too.

Fish sauce isn’t just for Asian food. Oh, no. You’d be surprised.

The ancient Romans made their own fish sauce, called garum, in much the same manner as the Thais and Vietnamese—by fermenting small, salted fish for months. These days, fish sauce is most popular in Southeast Asian cuisines, but it’s spreading to other corners of the culinary world. Modern Italian cuisine frequently employs anchovy paste in non-seafood dishes, which also packs an umami punch without coming off as overly fishy.

I use fish sauce in almost everything savory. Bone broth? A tablespoon for every 4 quarts or so kicks up the umami without tasting fishy. Spaghetti sauce? A few dashes toward the end. I’m rarely let down by the results.

You’ll find that most people whose only experience with fish sauce is “that smelly stuff in bottles at the Vietnamese noodle place” won’t be able to tell that you’ve added any. They’ll just really, really like your food.

That’s it for today, folks. Thanks for reading and be sure to chime in with any comments, questions, or suggestions down below!


TAGS:  dear mark

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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34 thoughts on “Dear Mark: When Nature is Stressful and How to Use Fish Sauce”

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  1. I have SAD in the summer – I am not outdoors as much because its hot, humid, buggy. I am a little depressed in July and August, my forest bathing is very curtailed and it really affects me. I try to get my outdoor time in early AM or late PM. Counting the days til Autumn.

    1. I’ve lived and traveled in places that are hot, humid and buggy. It makes me grateful to be back in my home state of Colorado. It can get hot here but it cools off at night and is seldom very humid or buggy. We don’t have mosquitos where I live, mostly just bees and various other pollinators. I haven’t even seen many house flies this summer.

  2. And I am just the opposite. I dread winter and pray for summer. I don’t mind sweating or bugs but anything below 60°F is cold. I work outside year round though.

    1. Try a -60f windchill and blowing snow. As a fellow outside worker, I enjoy it all – winter’s deadly cold and summer’s 100f+ with humidity. There’s is no such thing as bad weather. There is such thing as improper gear and preparation for it. The only thing I dislike about winter at work is that our equipment doesn’t work right, and due to airport safety regulations, we can’t just leave it running to keep it warm.

      1. I’m with you, Alfred, in loving summer. And thank you Mr. Dudeness for your wisdom about proper gear and preparation! It doesn’t fix everything but it sure goes a long way.

      2. I agree that there’s no such thing as bad weather. It’s just a matter of dressing for it and adjusting one’s attitude. The only thing I dislike about winter is the early darkness, and even that doesn’t really get me down.

  3. I live in Maine and it is very buggy right now but not often uncomfortably warm. So this time of year I tend to hike faster, keeping one step ahead of the bugs! Meanwhile I have lots of vacation time scheduled for the Fall that I’m eagerly looking forward to.

  4. At least CA is blessed with mountain lions patrolling your manicured Muir Woods – once the scene of a rare puma predation incident – to keep your neck hackles alert.

  5. The gap between “perfect” and, “this food tastes like fish sauce,” is not a large one. My jerk chicken on Friday became fish sauce chicken.

  6. Actually, I had a question of my own for a “Dear Mark” column that came up yesterday. I was miserable in Northern New York in the mid-80s because of the frequent rain, and eventually driven out of Seattle by the same thing. Now, I I’m in Brooklyn, and rain storms are still kind of a struggle. I think it’s the pressure. The air pressure drops, my blood pressure compensates and I’m locked in a struggle of willpower vs. torpidity. Outside of moving to Malibu, what can one do?

  7. I agree that fish sauce can be added to pretty much any savory dish, with great results.In fact, back in my vegetarian days I routinely used Tamari and Fish Sauce together, to give my creations that certain je ne sais quoi that veggie dishes are often lacking, thus making them more appealing to omnivores. As far as tomato based sauces go, I usually find throwing a smashed anchovy filet (or 2) into the mix, results in a wonderfully complex sauce without any hint of fishiness. And anchovies are cheaper than good fish sauce.

    1. I keep a tube of anchovy paste in the fridge for making tomato sauces. Nobody believes me when I tell them it’s my secret ingredient, because who would ever do a crazy thing like that?

      1. It’s true. They are an old Italian cooking ingredient giving a great base flavor, and not at all fishy. When the garlic goes into the oil, throw in a couple of anchovies. They just disappear.

  8. I think the biggest problem when someone is used to indoor life is that they have no tricks to avoid outdoor stressors. I hate getting bitten by black flies(gnats?) but who doesn’t? No seriously, I don’t know if I’m allergic but on my body, it lasts a week and more and it itches and hurts so bad but if I get bitten near my eyes, I can’t open them for 2-3 days. It’s really not something anyone would argue anyone should subject themselves for any reason but especially not health wise.

    But the trick is to know how to avoid black flies! You need to know where and what months they are swarming and avoid those places/weeks. In “forests” right smack in the middle of the city where I live, no problem. There is hardly any mosquitoes even at dusk. But if go in real forests, lakes or rivers, I need to get the information from other people before going. If I can’t, then I wait until it’s sure it will be safe like late August or September.

    Also, am I the only one who get less bitten when they eat primal?

    About the fish sauce, I think I need to find a better brand, mine only tastes like salt.

    1. In regards to your point about eating primal and getting bitten less. I think this happens with me! I thought it was all the garlic I eat but my wife eats just as much garlic as I do but doesn’t eat primal. She gets bit like everyone else.

      I’ll go on a hike or to the beach or pool with friends and they come back covered in bites but they don’t come after me. There has to be something to this theory.

  9. I love being outdoors…but gnats are a total stressor for me. I walk outside every day in pretty much any weather condition, but the one thing that makes me crazy are the little gnats that literally fly into your eyes in this humid weather. I just used fish sauce in a delicious Asian-inspired cod recipe last night. But I’ve never used it outside of Asian cuisine. Might have to get more adventurous!

  10. Wow nice koan 🙂

    Chaos—enough to keep things interesting and
    new and stimulating and novel. Order—enough
    that you can manage the chaos
    without it growing dull.

  11. Little-known fact: Worcestershire sauce is also made from fermented, salted fish. It’s also a lot easier to use in this context than Thai fish sauce (much harder to overwhelm the rest of the dish). Go for the original Lea & Perrins if you can.

    1. seconded! I have both on hand and use them whenever I can, the Thai fish sauce for more spicy, stronger tasting dishes, and the Worcestershire for milder, more “Western” tasting ones. neither tastes very good in it’s own, but in a dish they are like magic.

    2. Good point for those who have a hard time with the fish sauce! Love it too with anything beefy. In my kitchen they are two different ingredients, since the the Worcestershire has a pronounced tamarind taste. I can vouch for the original but if you can get your hands on the Wizard’s brand you will likely switch as I did. Less salty and more pungent, almost thick as molasses! Makes for a upper class Ceasar! Just a suggestion.

  12. Like fish sauce, good fermented soy sauce is very versatile. It’s great for anything that needs that savory umami and mushroom kick . If you put it in sauces and stews at the start of the cooking it loses its obvious notes and provides depth and softness to a dish.

  13. Just got back from a holiday in Southern Belize rain forest… no electricity… high humidity… bugs everywhere… it was awesome!

  14. Fish sauce pops up in a lot of cool places when you’re doing “modernist” cooking. I know J. Kenji López-Alt over at Serious Eats uses it as his “secret ingredient” in a number of dishes. And yes, less is definitely more.

    Bagna càuda, an Italian dish, has been a staple at special occasions in my mom’s family since forever. It’s just garlic, olive oil, butter, and anchovies (lots of them) and we eat fondue-style. You can toss all kinds of things in there, let them cook, and eat them. I always have to warn people who tend to gag about the anchovies that it’s nothing like they expect. I suspect it is powered by glutamate.

  15. I’ll have to disagree with Mark on the fish sauce. As an extreme supertaster (naturopath confirmed), I guarantee I would know your dish had fish sauce in it the minute it hit my tongue. (This is not a superpower I enjoy having.)

  16. On first read, because of me moving too fast (#sigh #always #workinprogress), I mis-read today’s headline as: “When nature is stressful, use fish sauce!”

    Ha. Could work though…

  17. Living next to one of the largest rivers in Europe so that the gnat problem is familar. Most of the gnats are prevented by dropping tons of Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis to the flood areas. The gnats only become a problem when there are too many floods in a short period of time followed by a heat wave.

    In the US much more houses have climate control compared to my country. And usually the temperature is set to much lower than it would be here. So of course, you don’t want to go outside because it’s practically freezing inside. I remember having to wear a shawl in Phoenix in October because it was so cold inside of the hotel.

  18. Fish sauce goes well with combination fried rice. Small dashes only.

  19. Can someone please recommend a variety of fish sauce that I can get in Canada that does not have any sugar in it????

    1. I found the same problem. I finally settled on Thai Kitchens that although it shows sugar in the ingredients list, it indicates 0 g of sugar in a 1 tbsp serving so I figure that in the amounts I would be using the sugar would be negligible.

    2. Read Boat. Just finally found it at Natura Market a couple of days ago, what a timing! Finally a Canadian source!

  20. I think there is something to weathering the discomforts of nature, so long as you do not get injured (or worse). When I was 16 I spent two weeks canoeing/hiking the Delaware water gap with a group of similar-aged peers. I must have fed hundreds of mosquitoes, but overall it was one of the best experiences of my life. The exposure to natural scenery, sunlight, and movement made it so that the discomfort was only a minor issue.

    Even more extreme, I think there is value to having a close brush with death. When I was 18, I had such an experience in the deserts of Arizona. It really helps put things in perspective. The months following my encounter were probably some of my calmest and most even-keeled. You can read more in my success story:

  21. All fish sauces are not equal. I once tried the fish sauce from my local Dillons “international” section and nearly threw up just from the smell. Trashed the bottle and swore to never try it again. Then recently got re-inspired and ordered Tra Chang Gold Label from ($3 for 7oz.), supposed aged for 2 years. It’s sooo much better, very little fish smell and lots of flavor, though I’m still experimenting on the best types of foods to enjoy it with.

  22. For everyone who hates the little gnats that fly in your face – there are a few levels of defense. The simplest is wearing a hat with a brim all around your head. Somehow, that fools many of these kinds of bugs, and they hang out at the perimeter of the hat rather than right at your face and head! Next level, there are actually hats with bug netting, and even bug netting jackets for gardeners that must be out in the buggy parts of the day. Then, there is always covering your skin with something that tastes nasty. Best of these options I have ever found (that I would use…) is lavender oil. Just mineral oil with lavender branches steeped in it. Works great, and is far less nasty than most of the conventional chemicals.