Perfecting a Local Fish Sauce
Maine Scientists Research Using Green Crabs As A New Ingredient for An Ancient Condiment
Scientists at the University of Maine are working to turn the invasive green crabs wreaking havoc on the state’s shellfish populations into a golden elixir that, though funky smelling, turns almost any savory dish into an umami bomb. We’re talking about fish sauce, possibly the first ever to be made in the United States using a local seafood source.
Food scientists Denise Skonberg and Jennifer Perry have mixed hundreds of pounds of frozen green crab carcasses (some whole, some minced, some shells only) with salt and sometimes a microbial culture or two. They stuffed the mixtures into fermenting crocks, stored them at varying ambient temperatures, and are now awaiting conclusive results.
Turns out the target flavor profile for fish sauce—which is most widely used in Southeast Asian cuisine but also has roots in ancient Rome, where it was called “garum”—is a moving one. Fish sauces vary in color, flavor and sweetness, and microbiology. Here, the natural microfauna found on the green crabs living in the Gulf of Maine will work with the microbial cultures to cure the fermenting proteins into a high-end fish sauce unique to Maine.
But at this juncture—about nine months into the project, funded by a $83,000 grant from Maine Sea Grant—it’s hard to tell exactly how this new creation might differ in taste from other commercial fish sauces.
“No one really [willingly] sits around and sips fish sauce” to assess the nuances like they do with fine wine or grades of maple syrup, says Dr. Perry. It’s potent stuff that is best diluted with water and mixed with sugar and lime juice to round out its musky saltiness. In the spring, though, the team plans to reach out to Maine chefs to have them try test the sauce before bottling it as a specialty product within the next year.
Christine has lived in many places, including Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, England and France. But her professional world has consistently been grounded in just two: in journalism and in the kitchen. Throughout her 30-year writing career, she’s covered sports, politics, business and technology. But for the past 10 years after completing culinary school, she’s focused on food. Her words and recipes about eating locally and sustainably have appeared in publications from The Portland Press Herald to Fine Cooking. Her award-winning cookbook Green Plate Special (link is: was published in 2017. When she’s not laboring over a cutting board or a keyboard, she’s learning from her two semi-adult children, a community of food-minded friends, hundreds of productive Maine farmers, thousands of innovative chefs near and far, and her 30,000 honeybees.