Years ago, when I first started teaching cooking classes in the small Ohio town where we lived, I was asked to teach a series on Thai food. I immediately said yes, then dived head first into every Thai cookbook I could get my hands on.

As much as I thought I knew about Thai cuisine before this moment, it didn’t take long to realize I’d just scratched the surface. So I spent an entire summer filling my kitchen with the fragrant smells of cilantro, lemon grass, chiles and fish sauce, which is a staple in Southeast Asian cuisine. It’s a seriously funky umami bomb that brings with it a whole spectrum of flavors from salty and briny to sweet and caramelized.

It is fragrant, but the flavor it lends to whatever you add it to is not reflected in its odor. In other words, it tastes a lot better than it smells once it’s been added to a dish, so don’t be turned off by your first whiff. You have to cook with it to appreciate it.

While it can and should be used in anything that would benefit from an added dose of umami, such as tomato sauce, sautéed mushrooms, even sautéed spinach, I can’t imagine cooking Thai food without it. So, it’s no surprise to find it in today’s Thai-Inspired Pork and Peanut Meatball Rice Bowls.

These rice bowls offer a complementary assortment of flavors and textures. We start out by making sweet and tart cucumber and carrot pickles by marinating the vegetables in rice wine vinegar, sugar and salt. These have a straightforward, bright flavor that plays perfectly with more complex flavors in the bowl, which come from the meatballs and peanut sauce.

The meatballs, made with pork, ginger, cilantro, garlic and fish sauce, are broiled briefly before being added to a simple peanut sauce that will surely become a staple in your culinary repertoire, as it’s quick, easy and utterly addictive.

It starts with unsweetened coconut milk, red curry paste and a dash of fish sauce, before a generous amount of crunchy peanut butter is whisked in to form a thick, shiny sauce that clings beautifully to the meatballs.

While the meatballs take advantage of the fish sauce’s saltiness to highlight all the other flavors, the peanut sauce pulls from the sweet, caramel notes to create a unique complexity of flavor, which, together with the quick pickles and a healthy sprinkling of fresh cilantro and green onions, make a lively topping for a bowl of soft jasmine rice.

Once you’ve discovered the joy of cooking with fish sauce, you’ll be surprised how often you’ll reach for it and how much better your dishes will taste with just a dash or two of this intriguing and, yes, fragrant ingredient.

 

Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina. Reach her at meredithdeeds@gmail.com. Follow her on Instagram ­at @meredithdeeds.