Fish sauce should never have more than fish, sugar, and salt as its ingredients. Tra Chang, a smaller, venerable label that has a long history and is family-owned and-run, fits the bill. The flavor is well-balanced and nice. I use Tra Chang both for cooking and for making dipping sauces. My son, who is allergic to wheat and all forms of gluten, dairy, egg, tree nuts, peanuts, and sesame, has never had any reactions to Tra Chang fish sauce. (YMMV.)
Tra Chang is easy to spot, but rarely spotted. Look for a red, yellow, and blue label with an old-fashioned scale weighing on one side fish and on the other side a gold bar labeled 100%
You really have to watch out for gluten in some fish sauce brands, as some companies add gluten-based flavor enhancers (similar to MSG) to their products. In fact, some of the more popular (and more expensive) brands include gluten in this form. As always, read your labels carefully.
Tra Chang, which only includes the fundamental ingredients of fish sauce: fish, salt, and sugar, is more affordable at the market where I buy it. I believe my current big bottle of Tra Chang cost less than $2. Better and cheaper! Go figure.
But in my kitchen, it’s not good enough just to be gluten- and allergen-free. It has to taste good, too. Using this criteria, I still reach for Tra Chang brand fish sauce every time.
Tra Chang is a Vietnamese-style fish sauce, which is less salty, more balanced, and not as brash in flavor as Thai- and Pilipino-style kinds of fish sauce. Mind you, I’m sure the Thai and Pilipino sauces are formulated to suit those particular cuisines. But since I cook more Vietnamese food, I naturally go for Vietnamese fish sauce.
A good Vietnamese fish sauce is balanced in flavor, subtle, nuanced. It will not hit you over the head with smell or salt, and it will only contain fish, salt, and sugar as ingredients — nothing else.
Vietnamese-style fish sauces sold in the U.S. are exported from Thailand, but they are *not* Thai style.
Unless a recipe here specifically calls for Thai- or Pilipino-style fish sauce, use a Vietnamese style fish sauce.
If you can only find Thai-style fish sauce, I recommend using Squid brand, which is widely available and, in our experience, gluten-, dairy-, egg-, tree nut-, peanut-, and sesame-free. (YMMV.) I use Squid fish sauce if I’m running low on Tra Chang and have to horde; in those instances, I reduce the amount of Squid fish sauce used. Like most Thai and Pilipino fish sauces, Squid is far saltier. I only use this substitution when cooking with fish sauce; I never use anything other than Tra Chang for my dipping sauces.
Squid brand is boldly labeled “Squid” and displays a picture of a, well, squid on the label. Squid is widely available.
In the Los Angeles/San Gabriel Valley area, Tra Chang is available at Hawaii Market (ask for it if you don’t see it, and yes, there is an entire aisle devoted to fish sauce) in San Gabriel and LAX-C, a gigantic Thai emporium just outside Chinatown in downtown L.A. My good friend Ayako buys this stuff for us back home and sends it all cushioned and vacuum sealed to us. Thanks, Ayako!!!
Another brand that comes with good reviews and does not include gluten and other additives according to their labeling is Golden Boy. I wasn’t able to find it in time before leaving the mainland and it isn’t sold here on Saipan. Like Tra Chang, Golden Boy is popular among food enthusiasts. We haven’t tried it yet. Golden Boy has a picture of a big baby on its label. One day when we move back to the mainland, we’ll give Golden Boy a try.