Introducing Tinola, The Goodness of Fermented Fish Sauce and Why You Should Try It

Photo By Pinot and DIta

Updated on 04/23/2010: See bottom of post for recommended fish sauce brands.

I love Tinola. This was a staple growing up in the Philippines and even now when my mom or sister cooks it, I feel like I’m back home. I’m fighting a cold right now, and a bowl of Tinola with some warm rice could do the trick.

But before I share with you this yummy recipe, let’s talk about fermented fish sauce and why you need to try it.

The Goodness of Fermented Fish Sauce, or Patis
Surely most of us are familiar with the health benefits of fish. Fish oil has become the most popular dietary supplement in the US. For those of us who (try to) subscribe to Weston A. Price’s philosophy know that fish broth will cure anything, at least according to a South American proverb. It contains the high nutritious minerals of bones and cartilage as electrolytes, which is very easy to assimilate. And plus think of all the omega-3 you can be getting. But let’s face it, few of us eat that much fish in any given week. I know I don’t.

Enter Fish Sauce. Or affectionately known to Filipinos as Patis. They call it Nuoc Mam in Vietna, Nam Pla in Thailand, Burma and Lao, Trasi in Indonesia, Belacanin Malaysia, and Teuk Trei in Cambodia.

What Soy Sauce is to East Asia is Fermented Fish Sauce to Southeast Asia. Many Americans are familiar with soy sauce, thanks to the popularity of Chinese and Japanese cuisines, but fish sauce? What?

I grew up with this staple sauce that graced many of our meals year round. It naturally adds saltiness to any meal, so less salt is used. But it’s so much more than just making your food salty. The flavor doesn’t really end up tasting like fish though. I can’t really describe it. It’s just good.

Photo By FootosVanRobin

And because fish sauce is fermented, it offers health benefits you wouldn’t even imagine. I mean, think about it. Fish fermented until all of what’s left is its goodness.

Marketman from Market Manila writes about the process of fermentation:

… a relatively simple process of fermenting small fish (or shrimp), usually dilis (sometimes fish in the mackerel family) or other plentiful fish that travel in large schools, with a brine mixture of water and lots of salt. This is allowed to ferment naturally outdoors for up to 24 months (though much less for mass produced patis) until such point that that a protein called hydrosylate is formed. The pungent liquid is siphoned off and the first batch of liquid (the fish sauce equivalent of extra virgin olive oil from the first pressing of olives) is considered the finest quality fish sauce… That liquid is then “aged” in sunlight until it achieves the ideal amber or caramel color, aroma and taste. But lots of factors can subtly alter the quality of one’s patis – the fish you start with, the manner in which fermentation is undergone (vats, heat, etc.) and the care with which the first liquid is drawn off.

So there. You curious to try it yet? My husband won’t go near it because of it’s smell. So be forewarned. But once you get past this, oh my word, a new dimension to your cooking will have opened up. Especially if you haven’t yet discovered the world of Southeast Asian cuisine besides Phad Thai and Pho. Seriously. You need to.

Simple Tinola Recipe
Here is a delicious recipe to try, if you’ve never tried fish sauce.


  • 2 tbsp Olive Oil
  • 2 tbsp Ginger, peeled and jullienned
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 medium sized yellow onion, sliced
  • 3-4 lbs of chicken pieces, dark meat is best
  • 2 tbps of fish sauce
  • 5 cups of water, or chicken stock
  • 1 stalk lemon grass
  • 2 small unripe papaya or l chayote, chopped (if you can’t find it at your asian grocery, you can substitute zucchini

Heat a large sauce pan to medium. Add olive oil. Saute garlic and ginger until fragrant. Add onions and saute until a little bit translucent. Add chicken pieces and brown them on all sides. Lower heat and cook for five minutes, stirring.

Add fish sauce and water. Bring to a simmer. Add the Lemon Grass and Chayote (Zucchini) pieces. Cover and simmer for at least 1 hour over low heat or until the chicken falls of the bones.

Serve over a bowl of warm rice. I usually add a spoonful of patis right before eating. If you want, you can garnish with green onions, cilantro or hot sauce. Whatever suits you.


P.S. You can find fish sauce in most asian groceries. I’ve never bought it at Whole Foods but I have a suspicion they may carry it as well.

This post is part of Pennywise Platter and Fight Back Friday

{ Per one reader’s question, I researched a little bit more how to find a good quality fish sauce. Labels from imported products may not sufficiently provide nutritional information so look for fish sauce with a clear, reddish brown color and without sediments in the bottom. If the color is dark or muddy, the fish sauce is probably lower grade. It should have the smell of the sea, not pungent fish smell (I didn’t know this before!) It also shouldn’t be overwhelmingly salty. Tra Chang and Golden Boy are two fish sauce that are supposedly 1st grade fish sauce. Both are recommended by native Thai cooks as well as well-known American food experts, Mark Bittman and Martha Steward.

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  1. manang bing says

    Ooooh, yummy tinola. Was planning to cook afritada but I think I’ll do tinola instead. I can smell the patis already!

  2. says

    Ohhhh yum, fish sauce.. I wouldn’t know what to do without it..

    It goes in practically ANYTHING, especially rice.
    We have the thai version overhere, as well as the little squares of fermented shrimp (trasi)

    Thank heavens for immigrants, or else we’d still be eating meat and potatoes everyday! *lol*

    Greetings from the Netherlands :)
    .-= Linda´s last blog ..You are what you eat =-.

  3. Vina Barham says

    Hi Linda! I’m glad you also like the fermented shrimp (bagoong in Filipino) – I love that stuff too!: )

  4. Angie says

    Hello! I love fish sauce, and have enjoyed making arroz caldo since it was introduced to me by Filipino co-workers. I was wondering, how do you know if you have a quality fish sauce? I am assuming that the ingredients should be only fish extract and salt. Mine is Phu Quoc brand and made with only anchovy extract and salt. Any advice?

  5. Vina Barham says

    Angie, thanks for stopping by! Arroz Caldo, yum! I am going to do a little more digging about better quality fish sauce. I think the less ingredients the better in general so I think the brand you are using is pretty good. If you promise to come back I’ll update this post with my findings! :)

  6. Vina Barham says

    Hi Angie, I updated the post with info on quality fish sauce brands….Cheers, Vina

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