Years ago, as test kitchen interns, a colleague and I were assigned the task of gathering six different brands of fish sauce for a tasting. This was a rare challenge in the northern hills of Vermont, where liquid amber means maple syrup, not fermented fish. Dedicated, unpaid kitchen help that we were, we drove through two states and back. On our triumphant return, my partner caught her clog on a shallow step and dropped our cargo to the sidewalk. All six bottles broke. Our managers were finally convinced that a fish sauce tasting was, perhaps, not required after all, and through the rest of the summer, visitors to our office were welcomed with the strange, disconcerting odor of salty-sweet fish floating in the breeze.

Having grown up in a small, Midwestern town, I was already used to driving an hour, each way, for our family's supply of nuoc mam. These days, fish sauce (known as nuoc mam in Vietnam and nam pla in Thailand) appears on the short list of popular ingredients, and the heady seasoning is now much easier to find. Chefs in search umami, that elusive fifth taste that follows sour, salty, bitter and sweet, admit to stirring a spoonful of the potent sauce into the day's special, and home cooks store a bottle of fish sauce next to their black bean paste and wasabi powder. For others, though, nuoc mam, (literally, "water of salty fish") is still an intimidating bottle of the essence of fishy-ness.

Admittedly, fish sauce can take some getting used to. Pungent is the polite term. Smelly is what I've heard in more honest quarters. But like anchovies blended into a Caesar dressing, it's an ingredient as essential as it is powerful. A dash of fish sauce gives Southeast Asian marinades, curries, salads and dipping sauces their distinctive complexity.

It's the star ingredient in nuoc cham ("water for dipping"), that final but essential layer of sweet-sour-salty flavor in many Vietnamese dishes. In its most familiar form, nuoc cham is the dipping sauce for cha gio, crisp imperial rolls filled with pork and shrimp. It's also the dressing for bun, a refreshing rice noodle salad that sings with aromatic herbs, and for goi, salads made with finely cut vegetables as familiar as cabbage or as rare as lotus shoots. Diluted, nuoc cham becomes a sauce for silky steamed noodle dishes, known as banh cuon.

Like soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and other fermented condiments, fish sauce adds depth of flavor to food both in the kitchen and at the table. Pale in color, it's an excellent substitute in dishes that would become too dark with soy sauce yet call for more complexity than salt alone can offer.

In the production of fish sauce, quality ingredients and patience are key for its rich, mellow flavor to develop. Traditionally, fishermen toss freshly caught anchovies with sea salt, pack the fish into large wooden vats and then cover them with woven straw mats. Rocks or logs mounded on the vat weigh down the fish. Left undisturbed for six months to one year, the fish slowly ferment, giving off a clear, amber liquid that will later be drained and bottled.

A high-quality producer will use only three ingredients: anchovies, water, salt. Many now include sugar as a fourth ingredient to create a sweeter, rounder flavor that seems to be the preference here in the United States.

Some families still follow the traditional process, but larger producers are learning ways to make more fish sauce faster. For lesser grades of fish sauce, the mash remaining after the first press is mixed with water and fermented a second, third, even fourth time.

Some companies, hoping to woo more Westerners, have even developed odorless versions of fish sauce. Using a special enzyme that removes most (no, not all!) of the odor-producing components, they have also unfortunately managed to destroy much of the flavor.

Like olive oil, fish sauce is generally available in a cooking grade and a more refined table grade. Price is often a good guide: the more a bottle costs, the better it will probably be. A bottle of fish sauce will never break the bank, and I'm certain even a fermented-fish virgin could tell the difference between a harsh 99-cent bottle and a smoother $2.79 brand.

When selecting fish sauce, tip the bottle toward the light. At the narrow neck of the bottle, look for a red glow. You won't need to squint to see it -- the red color should be obvious. Since this is an important mark of good fish sauce, bottles in Vietnam are sold in small, five- or six-ounce bottles that taper to a long, thin neck so buyers can check for themselves. Here in America even fish sauce finds itself super-sized into 24-ounce bottles.

Most fish sauces sold in the United States come to us by way of Thailand. (Many of these are actually produced in Vietnam and just labeled in Thailand, but that's another story.) However, Vietnamese companies are beginning to export to the United States, and in the years to come, we'll see more of the small bottles from premium producers. Fortunately, supermarkets across the country already stock their shelves with dependable brands, so finding a good-quality fish sauce no longer requires a lengthy road trip.

Grilled Pork Chops With

Ginger Caramel Glaze

(4 servings)

Thit kho, or pork simmered in caramel sauce, is a much-loved, traditional dish in Vietnam. However, I transformed the sauce into a marinade that becomes a rich glaze. The sauce also works well with chicken, quail or shrimp.

When selecting ginger root, look for firm knobs with thin, shiny, smooth skin. Old ginger is wrinkled and fibrous and will not form a juicy puree when grated.

4 thin pork chops, preferably bone-in

1/3 cup Savory Caramel Syrup (recipe follows)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

11/2 tablespoons rice wine or 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice

1 teaspoon fish sauce

11/2 teaspoons peeled and grated ginger root

2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Using a sharp knife, make 2 shallow, angled slash marks on each side of the pork chops, taking care not to cut through the meat. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the Savory Caramel Syrup, oil, rice wine, fish sauce, ginger, garlic and pepper. Add the pork chops and turn to coat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to overnight.

Prepare a grill on high heat or preheat the broiler.

Transfer the pork chops to the grill, discarding or reserving the marinade for a sauce (see next paragraph). Grill the pork chops, turning once, just until the meat is no longer pink at the center, 3 to 5 minutes per side.

For a sauce, if desired, you may transfer the reserved marinade from the pork chops to a saucepan, bring it to a vigorous boil and cook for 1 minute.

Serve the pork chops hot, drizzled with the sauce if desired.

Per serving: 172 calories, 12 gm protein, 11 gm carbohydrates, 8 gm fat, 39 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 655 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Savory Caramel Syrup

(Makes 1/3 cup)

This ginger-infused syrup is a variation on nuoc mau ("colored water"), a somewhat secret Vietnamese ingredient that combines the silky texture and mahogany color of caramel with the mellow and rich flavor of simmered fish sauce.

This syrup can be stored in a ceramic jar; a spoonful adds body and a hint of sweet smokiness to sautes, sauces and glazes.

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/3 cup warm water

1-inch knob ginger root, peeled and cut into 5 or 6 slices

2 large garlic cloves, halved

1/4 cup fish sauce

In a small, heavy, light-colored saucepan over medium heat, heat the sugar and water, stirring frequently, until the sugar dissolves. Add the ginger and garlic, increase the heat to medium-high and bring the mixture to a boil. Continue to boil, stirring occasionally, until the syrup begins to darken around the edge, 5 to 7 minutes. Keep a close watch and stir more frequently toward the end of the cooking time.

Meanwhile, measure out the fish sauce and have it ready.

When the syrup turns a deep amber color, remove the pan from the heat and carefully stir in the fish sauce. The mixture will bubble furiously; set the pan aside, off the heat, until the bubbling stops. The mixture may initially seize, or become partially solid, but it will re-liquefy as it continues to bubble. (If any hard crystals or threads of hard sugar remain, return the pan to low heat and stir the sauce until the sugar dissolves.) Set the pan aside to cool completely.

Using a fork, remove and discard the ginger and garlic. Using a spoon, remove and discard any foam from the surface. Transfer to an airtight glass or ceramic container. (May store in a cool, dark place for up to 3 months.)

Per 1-tablespoon serving: 69 calories, 1 gm protein, 17 gm carbohydrates, trace fat, 0 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 927 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Rice Noodle Salad

With Sauteed Chicken

(4 servings)

Minimal cooking, the contrast of hot and cold, and layer after layer of flavor make this substantial salad an excellent one-bowl meal. Its components can all be prepared ahead and assembled minutes before serving.

From this basic salad recipe come many variations. Try it with sauteed shrimp, thinly sliced grilled pork, five-spice tofu and shredded rotisserie chicken.

For the chicken:

2 tablespoons fish sauce

1 tablespoon packed brown sugar

2 large cloves garlic, finely minced

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (about 11/2 pounds), cut into thin strips

For the pickled carrots:

1 large carrot, peeled

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup rice or distilled white vinegar

1/2 cup water

For the scallions:

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 scallions (white and tender green portions), thinly sliced

For the noodle salad:

1 pound thin, dried rice noodles (bun, rice vermicelli or alimentary noodles)

4 leaves romaine or green leaf lettuce, cut crosswise into thin strips

1 cup (about 3 ounces) bean sprouts

1/2 small hothouse cucumber, seeded and cut into 2-inch matchsticks

1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh mint leaves

1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro

1/2 cup roasted, coarsely chopped peanuts

Nuoc Cham (recipe follows)

For the chicken: In a small bowl, stir together the fish sauce, sugar, garlic and pepper. Add the chicken and stir to coat evenly. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to overnight.

For the carrots: Using a vegetable peeler or a sharp knife, shave the carrots or cut them into 2-inch matchsticks. Set aside.

In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the sugar, vinegar and water and heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves, just until small bubbles appear. Remove from the heat; add the carrot and set aside to cool. Drain well before using. (May cover and refrigerate for up to 1 week.)

For the scallions: In a small saucepan or skillet over medium heat, heat the oil until hot. Add the scallions, stir to coat with oil and immediately transfer the scallions and oil to a small bowl. (If preparing ahead, refrigerate the scallions in the oil for up to 2 days. You will need to separate the oil from the scallions when you prepare the marinated chicken.)

For the noodle salad: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer the noodles to a colander to drain. Immediately rinse the noodles with cold running water to stop the cooking and remove any excess starch, then toss to drain away as much water as possible. Set aside to dry slightly. (To prepare the noodles in advance, undercook them by 1 minute. Drain but do not rinse them, then refrigerate for up to 2 days. Just before using, rinse the noodles with hot tap water and drain well.)

To prepare the chicken: Place a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Carefully swirl in the oil from the scallions. Add the marinated chicken and cook, stirring frequently, until the meat is golden at the edges and cooked through, 3 to 5 minutes. (Do not crowd the wok; may need to cook the chicken in batches.)

To assemble the salad: Have ready 4 large, shallow dishes. Divide the lettuce, bean sprouts and cucumbers evenly among the dishes. Next divide the noodles among the bowls, followed by the pickled carrots and chicken. Sprinkle each with mint, cilantro and peanuts and the reserved scallions. Serve immediately with the Nuoc Cham on the side to drizzle over the salad.

Per serving (using 2 tablespoons Nuoc Cham per serving): 769 calories, 40 gm protein, 105 gm carbohydrates, 15 gm fat, 65 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 1,357 mg sodium , 7 gm dietary fiber

Nuoc Cham

(Makes about 1 cup)

This version of nuoc cham was designed for a noodle salad so it is made with more water than the standard dipping sauce. It's best to make this sauce 1 hour in advance to let its flavors meld.

Since the strength of limes and the flavor of fish sauce vary, don't worry about achieving perfection the first time. Have fun tasting and adjusting the flavor according to personal preference. Some families prefer their nuoc cham on the sweet side; others like to enliven it with extra chili peppers.

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup fish sauce

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice (may substitute rice vinegar)

1 clove garlic, very finely chopped

1 seeded, thinly sliced red chili pepper or 1/2 teaspoon chili-garlic sauce (tuong ot toi), or to taste

1/2 cup water

In a small bowl or jar, combine all of the ingredients and stir or shake until the sugar is dissolved. Taste and add more sugar, fish sauce, juice or water to taste. No single flavor should dominate, but rather the ingredients will meld into a balanced sweet-sour sauce. If possible, set aside for at least 1 hour prior to servings. (May cover tightly and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.)

Per 1-tablespoon serving: 16 calories, trace protein, 4 gm carbohydrates, trace gm fat, 0 cholesterol, trace gm saturated fat, 345 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Fried Rice

(4 servings)

Fish sauce, rather than soy sauce, preserves the delicate colors and flavors of this Thai manner of using leftover rice. Although I prefer to use a combination of shrimp, pineapple and peas, you could substitute almost-cooked chicken and another quick-cooking vegetable, such as bell pepper.

The secret to perfect fried rice is to cook the rice one day ahead of time and refrigerate it overnight. Just-cooked rice is too moist and makes soggy, sticky fried rice; clumps of cold rice can be easily loosened with your fingers to separate the grains. In a pinch, you can spread freshly cooked rice on a baking sheet and freeze it for about 30 minutes.

21/2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large egg, slightly beaten

2 scallions, thinly sliced, green and white sections separated

2 large cloves garlic, minced

3/4 pound small cooked shrimp

4 cups cooked long-grain rice (do not use glutinous [sticky] rice)

1/2 cup fresh or frozen, thawed petite peas

21/2 tablespoons fish sauce

2 red Thai chili peppers, seeded and cut into very thin strips (optional)

1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro

Cucumber slices

Fresh lime wedges

In a wok or large skillet over medium heat, heat 1/2 tablespoon of the oil. Add the egg and cook, stirring quickly and constantly, until the egg is scrambled into small, dry curds, about 30 seconds. Transfer to a small bowl; set aside.

Return the pan to medium heat. Carefully swirl in the remaining 2 tablespoons oil and heat until hot but not smoking. Add the scallion whites and the garlic and heat, stirring, just until fragrant, 10 to 15 seconds. (Do not allow them to brown or the rice will be discolored and bitter.) Add the shrimp and stir-fry for about 1 minute. Add the rice, 2 cups at a time, stirring well after each addition to separate individual grains. Add the peas and fish sauce and continue stir-frying until the rice is heated though, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Add the scallion greens, chili peppers (if using) and cilantro. Toss to combine. Garnish with cucumber slices and lime wedges and serve immediately.

Per serving: 877 calories, 34 protein, 152 gm carbohydrates, 12 gm fat, 219 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 1,103 mg sodium, 4 dietary fiber

Thy Tran is a freelance food writer who divides her time between San Francisco and Saigon. She shares her travel and tasting notes at her Web site, www.wanderingspoon.com.