Marinara Pasta with Secret Sauce

Italian marinara pasta with bread crumbs gets a splash of Vietnamese fish sauce for the win.
Italian marinara pasta with bread crumbs gets a splash of Vietnamese fish sauce for the win.

My dad probably was never aware of the concept of umami.

All he knew was that a splash of soy sauce imparted a magical touch to so many dishes — from homemade steak sauce to a marinade for prime rib to Thanksgiving gravy.

He’d reach for that bottle of soy sauce instinctively, knowing it would add depth of flavor and a boost of savoriness to most anything it touched.

In much the same way, Vietnamese fish sauce is as indispensable in the kitchen.

If you know the fermented condiment made from black anchovies and salt only from its use in the ubiquitous nuoc cham dipping sauce served alongside so many dishes at Vietnamese restaurants, you know merely a fraction of its uses.

Explore just how versatile fish sauce can be in the new cookbook, “The Red Boat Fish Sauce Cookbook: Beloved Recipes from the Family Behind the Purest Fish Sauce” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), of which I received a review copy.

It was written by the East Bay’s Cuong Pham, the former Apple engineer who founded Red Boat Fish Sauce, the game-changing brand that’s beloved by legions of top chefs and home-cooks.

After immigrating to the United States, he hunted high and low for the ultra fragrant, deeply amber fish sauce of his youth. When he couldn’t find any brands here that met his standards, he created his own in 2011, sourcing wild black anchovies off the coast of Vietnam and combining them with nothing but salt in wooden barrels to ferment the age-old way. In doing so, he created a fish sauce celebrated for its purity of flavor with no additives, enhancers, or preservatives.

His cookbook was written with food writer Tien Nguyen; and Chef Diep Tran, former owner of Good Girl Dinette in Los Angeles, who is now the R&D chef for Red Boat Fish Sauce.

It includes 100 recipes that use Red Boat Fish Sauce, and its other products such as its fish-sauce infused salt, in both traditional dishes and others that are a little more outside-the-box. They include everything from “Quick Red Boat Bacon” and “Taro Shrimp Fritters” to “Seafood Chowder” and “Burgers with Red Boat Dressing.”

I gravitated to “Pasta Marinara with Herbed Bread Crumbs” because it is one of those essential weeknight dishes that can be made on the fly if you keep a well-stocked pantry and fridge, especially one that holds a bottle of Red Boat.

There's always a bottle in my fridge.
There’s always a bottle in my fridge.

This easy-breezy tomato sauce is just a load of minced onions and some slices of garlic sauteed in butter and oil, then mixed with a big can of crushed tomatoes, and a splash of fish sauce, all simmered together until the flavors meld.

In a frying pan, bread crumbs (I used panko) get sauteed quickly in melted butter and another dash of fish sauce. Off heat, minced garlic (I used spring green garlic), parsley and lemon zest get stirred in.

Toss al dente spaghetti with the sauce. Top with a hail of bread crumbs, and a sprinkle of Parmesan — and dinner is ready.

In no way does this taste like a Vietnamese dish. The fish sauce is quite subtle. In fact, you might not even know it’s there. So, if you’re a fish sauce fanatic, you might even want to add a tad more to the marinara, as I noted in the recipe below.

Without the fish sauce, the marinara would taste predominantly sweet and tangy of tomatoes. With the fish sauce, though, it tastes deeper, fuller, more savory, and even a little meaty. The bread crumb mixture adds an irresistible jolt of toasty crunchiness, too.

Adding Vietnamese fish sauce to an Italian pasta dish isn’t all that radical when you think about it. Not when Italians have long salt-cured Italian anchovies to make their own fish sauce known as colatura di alici.

So grab that bottle of fish sauce even when you’re not cooking strictly Vietnamese food, and get ready to sing its praises in so many new ways.

Twirly deliciousness.
Twirly deliciousness.

Red Boat Pasta Marinara with Herbed Bread Crumbs

(Serves 4 to 6)

For the marinara:

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 cups minced white or yellow onions

2 tablespoons sliced garlic

1 tablespoon Red Boat Fish Sauce or to taste

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

1 1/2 pounds cooked pasta, preferably a strand variety like spaghetti, linguine, or fettuccini

For serving:


Ground black pepper

Herbed Bread Crumbs (recipe follows)

In a medium saucepot over medium heat, heat the butter and olive oil. When the butter starts to sizzle, add the onions and saute until they’re aromatic, 3 to 5 minutes.

Add the garlic and cook until aromatic, 3 to 5 minutes.

Lower the heat to low and braise the onions and garlic for 15 minutes, stirring often to prevent the bottom from scorching.

Add the fish sauce, black pepper, and crushed tomatoes. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes. The total cooking time for the sauce will be 40 to 45 minutes.

Over high heat, bring the tomato sauce back to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until it’s warmed through, 3 to 5 minutes.

Transfer the pasta to bowls and top each bowl with grated Parmesan, black pepper, and bread crumbs.

Herbed Bread Crumbs

(Makes 1 1/2 cups)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 teaspoon Red Boat Fish Sauce

1 1/2 cups bread crumbs (feel free to use panko, if you like)

1 tablespoon minced garlic (or spring garlic, green and white parts)

3 tablespoons lemon zest

1/2 cup minced parsley

In a small pan over medium heat, heat the oil, butter, and fish sauce. Once the butter begins to sizzle, add the bread crumbs. Stir to coat evenly in the butter and oil.

Take the pan off the heat and mix in the garlic. Transfer the bread crumbs to a mixing bowl to cool.

Once the bread crumbs are cool, stir in the lemon zest and parsley.

The bread crumbs are ready to use. Any leftovers can be stored in a tightly covered jar for up to 3 days. The crumbs will soften a tad, so you may want to re-crisp them for a few seconds in a hot pan on the stovetop.

Adapted from “The Red Boat Fish Sauce Cook Book” by Cuong Pham with Tien Nguyen and Diep Tran

Discover More Red Boat Products: Kho Sauce

And: Concentrated Nuoc Cham

More Ways to Use Fish Sauce: Green Beans in Brown Butter and Ginger Fish Sauce

And: Honeydew Salad with Peanuts and Lime

And: Braised Cabbage with Tomatoes and Fish Sauce

And: Grape Tomato “Quick Kimchi”

And: Farro and Tomato Salad with Fish-Sauce Vinaigrette

And: Shrimp with Cilantro, Lime and Peanuts

And: Vietnamese Pork Meatball Banh Mi Fried Rice

And: Maui-Style Kalbi Short Ribs

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