Fish Sauce vs Hoisin Sauce: What’s the Difference?

fish sauces in bottle

Welcome to the savory world of Asian condiments! If you’ve ever savored the flavors of Asian cuisine, chances are you’ve encountered the tantalizing duo of fish sauce and hoisin sauce.

With their distinct flavors, these two condiments add depth and complexity to many dishes. But what sets them apart? And how do their flavors dance on your palate in distinctive ways? 

In this article, we embark on a flavorful journey to unravel the differences between fish sauce and hoisin sauce. From their origins to their flavor profiles and typical uses, we’ll explore the nuances that make each sauce a culinary gem.

So fasten your seatbelts and get ready to indulge your taste buds as we uncover the secrets of fish sauce and hoisin sauce. Let’s dive in and discover what makes them stand out in the delicious world of Asian cuisine!

Fish Sauce

Fish sauce, often hailed as the “soy sauce of Southeast Asia,” is a dark, pungent liquid that is made from fermented fish. While the exact origins of fish sauce are unknown, it has been used in Southeast Asian cuisine for centuries.

The process of making fish sauce involves fermenting fish, usually anchovies, with salt. The resulting liquid is then pressed and filtered, resulting in a distinctive and intense flavor.

Flavor and Aroma

Fish sauce has a strong umami flavor, which is savory and slightly salty. It also boasts a rich, complex aroma that some may find challenging at first. When used in cooking, fish sauce adds depth and enhances the flavor profile of dishes. It’s often described as having a unique “funky” taste that can be an acquired taste for some.


Fish sauce is a common ingredient in many Southeast Asian cuisines, including Thai, Vietnamese, and Filipino. It is used as a base for various sauces, dressings, and marinades. 

Fish sauce can be added to stir-fries, soups, curries, and even salad dressings to impart a distinct umami flavor. It can also be used as a dipping sauce or as a seasoning for noodles and rice dishes.

Notable Brands and Varieties

There are several popular brands of fish sauce available on the market, each with its own unique characteristics. Some well-known brands include Red Boat, Three Crabs, and Squid Brand.

The quality and flavor of fish sauce can vary depending on the brand and the region it comes from. Vietnamese fish sauce, for example, is often considered to be of high quality and is known for its balanced flavor and complexity.

Hoisin Sauce

hoisin sauces bottle

Hoisin sauce, sometimes called “Chinese barbecue sauce,” is a thick, dark sauce that originated in China. It is made from a blend of soybeans, garlic, vinegar, and various spices. Hoisin sauce is known for its sweet and savory taste, making it a popular condiment in Chinese cuisine.

Flavor and Aroma

Unlike fish sauce, hoisin sauce is sweeter and less pungent. It has a distinct flavor profile that combines sweetness from the sugar with a tangy, savory taste from the fermented soybeans. Hoisin sauce also has a hint of garlic and various spices, giving it a more complex flavor compared to other sauces.


Hoisin sauce is versatile and can be used in various ways. It is often used as a glaze or marinade for roasted meats, such as Peking duck, char siu (barbecued pork), bacon wrapped pork filet. It can also be used as a dipping sauce for spring rolls, dumplings, and other appetizers. Hoisin sauce can add a delightful sweet and savory flavor to stir-fries, noodles, and even as a condiment for sandwiches or wraps.

Notable Brands and Varieties

There are many brands of hoisin sauce available, both imported and locally produced. Lee Kum Kee is one of the most well-known and widely available brands. They offer different variations of hoisin sauce to suit various preferences. Some varieties may have slight variations in flavor, sweetness, or thickness. So, it’s worth trying different brands to find the one you prefer.

Key Differences

We’ve explored the individual characteristics of fish sauce and hoisin sauce. Now let’s compare them side by side to understand the key differences between these two flavorful condiments.

Fish SauceHoisin Sauce
OriginSoutheast AsiaChina
Main IngredientsFermented fish, saltSoybeans, sugar, garlic, vinegar, spices
FlavorIntensely savory, pungent, umamiSweet, tangy, savory, with a hint of garlic and spices
AromaRich, complexLess pungent, more subdued
Typical UseBase for sauces, dressings, and marinades; seasoning for various dishesGlaze or marinade for roasted meats; dipping sauce for appetizers; flavor enhancer for stir-fries and noodles
AvailabilityWidely available in Asian markets and onlineWidely available in Asian markets and grocery stores

As seen in the table above, the main difference lies in their origins, ingredients, flavors, aromas, and typical uses. Fish sauce, with its fermented fish base, offers a strong umami flavor and is used as a seasoning or base for sauces and dressings. 

Hoisin sauce, with its blend of soybeans, sugar, and spices, delivers a sweet and savory taste. This sauce is a popular choice for glazes, marinades, and dipping sauces.

While fish sauce has a strong fish taste due to its intense flavor, hoisin sauce is generally milder and more approachable for a wider range of palates. Both sauces add depth and complexity to dishes. Their distinct flavors lend themselves to different culinary applications.

When it comes to availability, both fish sauce and hoisin sauce are widely accessible in Asian markets and grocery stores. They are also available online, allowing you to explore different brands and variations to suit your tastes.

Fish Sauce vs Hoisin Sauce: Usage and Substitutes

Understanding when to use fish sauce versus hoisin sauce can impact the flavor of a dish. Fish sauce shines in recipes that need a robust umami flavor and a touch of saltiness, such as Thai curries and Vietnamese dipping sauces.

Hoisin sauce is a go-to choice for dishes that enjoy its sweet and savory taste, like stir-fries and glazed meats. It’s worth experimenting with both sauces to find the perfect balance for your palate.

When fish sauce or hoisin sauce is not available, there are substitutes you can use. For fish sauce, a combination of soy sauce, lime juice, and a pinch of sugar can provide a similar umami flavor. As for hoisin sauce, a mixture of soy sauce, peanut butter, honey, or molasses and a dash of Chinese five-spice powder can mimic its taste and texture.

Choosing Between Fish Sauce and Hoisin Sauce

Choosing between fish sauce and hoisin sauce depends on personal preference and flavor profile. Consider the regional influences and culinary traditions of the dish you are preparing. 

If you enjoy the strong umami flavor and aroma that fish sauce brings, it is the way to go. If you prefer a balance of sweetness and savory notes, hoisin sauce is the better option. Don’t be afraid to combine both sauces in certain recipes to create a unique and flavorful dish.

Ultimate Guide to THAI SAUCES - Fish sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and more!

Are Fish Sauce and Hoisin Sauce Gluten-Free?

Fish sauce and hoisin sauce’s gluten-free status is frequently debated. Gluten, a protein in wheat and other grains, can be difficult for people with gluten sensitivity, celiac disease, or gluten-free diets. To determine whether fish sauce and hoisin sauce are suitable options, you need to look into their ingredients and production processes.

Let’s begin with fish sauce. Salt fermentation of fish is the traditional method for making fish sauce. The result is a rich umami flavor that enhances a variety of dishes. Fish sauce is gluten-free, but it’s important to read labels and choose brands without additional gluten. 

Check the packaging or call the manufacturer to make sure the fish sauce is gluten-free.

Moving on to hoisin sauce Gluten-free status can vary depending on the brand and the specific recipe. Hoisin sauce typically includes ingredients such as soybeans, garlic, vinegar, and various spices, which provide its distinct sweet and savory taste. 

Although the base ingredients of hoisin sauce do not inherently contain gluten, some brands may include wheat or wheat-based products as thickening agents or flavor additives. Therefore, it is crucial to examine the label or consult the manufacturer to determine whether a particular brand of hoisin sauce is gluten-free.

For individuals who require gluten-free alternatives, there are gluten-free versions of both fish sauce and hoisin sauce available on the market. Several brands offer gluten-free fish sauce made with gluten-free ingredients. They have rigorous manufacturing processes to ensure the absence of gluten contamination. 

Similarly, some manufacturers produce hoisin sauce labeled as gluten-free, using alternative thickening agents or omitting gluten-containing additives.


In the culinary world, fish sauce and hoisin sauce are both beloved condiments that play essential roles in Asian cooking. Fish sauce’s fermented fish base gives it a strong umami flavor, but hoisin sauce’s sweetness and savory flavors are delicious. Understanding their differences allows you to make informed choices when incorporating these sauces into your dishes.

In conclusion, fish sauce and hoisin sauce are unique condiments that bring distinct flavors and aromas to Asian cuisine. Understanding the differences between these sauces will help you choose the right one for your culinary adventures. So, go ahead and experiment with fish sauce and hoisin sauce to unlock a world of delicious possibilities in your kitchen!

Similar Posts