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The (American) Cult of Three Crabs Fish Sauce

How a Thai product made by a California company won the hearts of Korean American cooks

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Illustration of five women holding hands and dancing around a bottle of Three Crabs Fish Sauce. Other ingredients like cabbage, crabs, and pear sit alongside. Subin Yang/Eater

As a new immigrant to the U.S. with no family roots to tie me to a region, I was constantly moving to different places, following jobs and opportunities. Whenever I landed in a new city, I sought out the Korean American community to help me settle in. Ajummas would invite me to their homes to talk, ask me how I was doing, whether I had a boyfriend, and how my folks were doing back in Korea. Inevitably they’d ask if I’d figured out how to make Korean food at home. When I’d mention that I make my own kimchi, they’d inevitably recommend Three Crabs Fish Sauce. Their enthusiasm convinced me to nod and smile knowingly, a silent agreement to their love for this brand — even though it was one I’d never seen, heard, or talked about when I lived in Korea.

Despite the name, the fish in Three Crabs Fish Sauce is anchovy, fitting the flavor of Korean fish sauces, which are usually made with either anchovy or the Pacific sand lance. But the history of the brand is uniquely American. The pungent sauce is sold by the Viet Huong Fish Sauce company, founded in San Francisco in the 1980s by a China-born businessman who lived in Vietnam before immigrating to the U.S. during the Vietnam War. The bottle boasts that the fish sauce is a product of Thailand and processed in Hong Kong. Neither of these countries hosts dominant Korean-speaking populations, but there’s a Korean name on the packaging (삼게표 멸치액젓).

I’m fascinated by the cult status this fish sauce has achieved among Korean American ajummas, even as more Korean sauces become available stateside. Maangchi, the internet’s Korean mom, recommends Three Crabs as her preferred brand. A 2013 article in LA’s Korea Daily asks “Is there even a homemaker who doesn’t know about Three Crabs?” with interviews from local women raving about Three Crabs. “I’ve tried all the sauces on the market, but I couldn’t find anything as flavorful,” says Alice Kim from Brea, California, who is famous among her friends as a great cook. An anonymous woman credits the fish sauce as her secret ingredient, saying it’s especially good for making scallion kimchi. With its uniquely American applications — which are endless and vary from cook to cook — the sauce is reflective of a whole new diasporic food culture that developed separately from the motherland, with its own favorites, classics, and quirks.

I grew up mostly in Korea and moved to the U.S. as an adult in the mid-aughts, and I’ve watched with bemusement the growing popularity of Korean food and pop culture. When I first came to the U.S., I had only three options to buy gochujang, the spicy soy-paste staple: Drive to the nearest city with a Korean grocery store; smuggle in Korean Air’s gochujang tubes that came with the in-flight bibimbap meal; or wait for HMart, a once-small local East Coast brand known as Hanareum Mart, to open an online store, pooling together an order with my friends to minimize shipping fees. Today, HMart has stores in 14 states across the U.S., and I can spot gochujang everywhere, even at Safeway. It’s nice to be able to find Korean ingredients so easily now.

But the truth is, Koreans were latecomers to the U.S. compared to our neighbors in Northeast Asia. While Chinese and Japanese immigrants came to the U.S. as early as the 1840s, the first major wave of Korean immigrants was in 1903, followed by a much larger wave in the 1950s and ’60s, following the Korean War.

Those Korean immigrants wanted to eat food like they did back home, and the new Americans often had to find substitutes for harder-to-find ingredients. Some modifications seemed like moderate leaps of logic. When napa cabbage (배추 - baechu) was hard to find, people made kimchi with cabbage (양배추 - yang baechu): After all, the word for cabbage in Korean is simply “Western napa cabbage.” The preferred rice for Korean Americans is Calrose rice, also marketed as sushi rice, a medium-grain rice developed in California in 1948. Similar to the dominant variety of rice eaten in contemporary Korea after the Japanese occupation, it was a crop made to mimic Japanese rice that can be easily grown in the U.S. Other staples such as tofu, soy sauce, and sesame oil could be found in Chinese and Japanese groceries, and although the flavors in the Korean brands were different, recipes could easily be adjusted to make them unnoticeable, usually by using slightly less sugar.

Three Crabs Fish Sauce became a clear winner among Korean Americans over other brands of fish sauce. Being from Seoul, I’m most familiar with regional cuisine that uses fish sauce primarily for kimchi. Kimchi made with Three Crabs tastes sweeter and more crisp compared to kimchi made with Korean fish sauce brands, creating a uniquely “American” flavor that works well with a heavier and more red-meat-dominant Korean American cuisine. Kimchi made with Three Crabs cuts through the fattiness of red meat; its unique umami profile, which hits more toward the back of the palate, adds a delightful nuance to barbecue.

Despite its rave popularity in the Korean American ajumma community, however, Three Crabs Fish Sauce is either unheard of or difficult to find in Korea itself. Food bloggers post about this “new Southeast Asian fish sauce” during their travels. A handful of Korean retailers sell Three Crabs online, but not nearly as much as Korean-brand fish sauces. Recently on the Korean online platform Naver Shopping, I found almost 44,000 websites selling anchovy-based fish sauce. Only seven of them were selling Three Crabs.

Cuisine that evolves in the diaspora is often framed in the context of necessity, the idea of “making do” with local ingredients when replicating those at home is impossible. It’s common to hear arguments that food from the diaspora is somehow less “authentic” than food from the homeland.

But those food innovations can make it back to the motherland, too, suggesting that a culture’s food is not strictly tied to the land where it originates. LA galbi, or LA-style thin-cut marinated beef short ribs, is an import now established back on the Korean peninsula. The preferred way of cutting ribs in Korea is English style, where each rib is separated then butterflied so that a long strip of meat is attached to a thick piece of bone. Korean immigrants (the largest concentration in the U.S. settled in Los Angeles County) discovered that American butchers preferred the flanken style of short ribs, and an unintended benefit of this cut was that the beef marinated faster. LA galbi was then transported to Korea in the ’70s and ’80s. I recall in elementary school that when a child brought LA galbi in their lunchbox, all the kids would surround them and ask for a piece, admiring this American way of eating beef.

Korean food in Korea is hyperlocal and regional due to the long indigenous history of its people living on a peninsula divided by mountains and streams. Each region developed its own traditions: from the heavily spiced, seafood-based stews of the southern regions, to the buckwheat and potato pancakes of the eastern mountains, to the cold, white kimchi eaten in the north. Despite the comparatively short period of time since mass immigration, Korean American food has developed into a unique branch of regional Korean cuisine. This branch carries the lives of new immigrants to the U.S. and the culture from the Asian immigrants who arrived before them: It’s a reminder of the food back home, reimagined in the safety of their kitchens.

I’m interested to see how Korean American food will continue to evolve, both in conjunction with and separate from Korean food in Korea. Using Three Crabs fish sauce — and Western, not napa cabbage — results in a uniquely American style of kimchi with Thai, Hong Kongese, and Korean influences. The sweet kimchi made from Three Crabs is now part of my core memory, as much as the food I grew up with in Korea. If I ever move back to Korea, I imagine I’d be thankful that the fish sauce is available online. And though it never keeps as long as napa cabbage kimchi, I might pick up a head of Western cabbage today to make a small batch. The nostalgia reminds me of how we’ve learned to adapt in this country.

Minyoung Lee is a writer in Oakland. Subin Yang is a South Korean freelance illustrator currently based in NYC.
Copy edited by Laura Michelle Davis