Do you remember The Book of the Month Club? It was a (very) pre-internet mail-order scheme where you signed up to get one title hand-selected by the club’s editors and judges sent to you every 30 days. You paid jacket price for that one, but then got crazypants offers to buy for 10 more books for $1. Circa 1995, one of the cookbooks I paid 10 cents for was “Step-By-Step Thai Cookery.”

Dipping Sauce  No. 2 on page 18 is why I loved this cookbook. The recipe calls for mixing 6 tablespoons fresh lime juice, 2 teaspoons crushed palm sugar, and a 1/2 teaspoon fish sauce until the sugar is dissolved. Then you add a 1/2 teaspoon each of finely diced shallot and red and green chilis. It’s a sauce that works as quick dressing for shredded carrot and cucumber salad, livens up leftover grilled chicken and rice, offers a tart foil to fried fish, and is a great dip for spring rolls, egg rolls and any sort of Asian dumpling.

An adapted Dipping Sauce No. 2, made with Maine Green Crab Sauce. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

I’ve adapted the recipe as my cooking philosophy has gotten greener. I now include lime zest because why waste that part of the fruit? And I’ve swapped-in local maple syrup for tropical palm sugar. Once I tried skipping the fish sauce because I was out and at the time you could only find the ingredient at an Asian grocery store. I thought adding soy sauce would be a fine substitution given that 1/2 teaspoon (only 4.5 percent of Dipping Sauce No. 2 by volume) of fish sauce couldn’t be worth emitting the carbon to drive 20 minutes to buy it.

I will not make that mistake again. Fish sauce is one of those ingredients that you don’t want to taste on its own, but your palate will miss the underlying funky tang it brings to the table.

Even in small amounts, Asian fish sauce – in this case Maine-made Green Crab Sauce – adds an umami bomb wherever you add it. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Ancient Rome produced a similar ingredient known as garum, but today fish sauce is chiefly associated with East and Southeast Asian cuisines including those from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Most of the fish sauce sold in the United States is made in those countries by taking small forage fish like anchovies, or fatty fish like mackerel, coating them in salt and packing them in large barrels for two years. During that time, natural bacteria break down the fish, producing a briny, fishy, savory liquid that looks like dark tea, smells like rotting fish, and a bottle of Maine-made Green Crab Sauce holds its own next to a popular commercial brand of Vietnamese fish sauce. Fish sauces vary in color, flavor, sweetness and microbiology.

What would happen if you changed up the seafood to help solve the problem of invasive green crabs wreaking havoc on the coast of Maine? Could the Gulf of Maine green crabs (and the microfauna on them) be fermented into a high-end fish sauce unique to this place? That’s what private chef Ali Waks Adam was thinking as she enjoyed a bowl of pho at Brunswick’s Little Saigon Restaurant about five years ago. At the time, Waks Adams, who also is the culinary director at Kennebec Meat Company in Bath, was already working with marine scientist Marissa McMahan (from Manomet) and food scientists Jennifer Perry and Denise Skonberg (both from the University of Maine) on ideas for feasible green crab foodstuffs, like tiny fried green crabs to garnish chowder, soft-shelled green crabs as a delicacy on their own, and green crab paste stirred into tomato sauce. But this idea struck her as her best one yet.


With the help of an $83,000 grant from Maine Sea Grant, the team has 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, packed the mixtures into fermenting crocks, and stored them at varying ambient temperatures to find the right balance of funky flavor. They’ve also sent small amounts of their trial Maine green crab sauce to 20 chefs and fish sauce aficionados throughout the Northeast (including me, because Waks Adams is one of my besties). We’ve all agreed to test it and report back.


A bottle of Maine-made Green Crab Sauce holds its own next to a popular commercial brand of Vietnamese fish sauce. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“It’s fishy, very fishy,” says Waks Adams, laughing when I ask how it tastes. “It’s got the textbook pungent aroma of a fish sauce. But again, this product was always meant to be an ingredient, not the star of a dish. You don’t take shots of the stuff or pour it over ice cream.”

Noting also that it’s thicker and darker than other fish sauces on the market, she’s used it to replace anchovies in Caesar salad dressing, as well as in nuoc cham (a sauce very similar to Dipping Sauce No. 2), and a sweet and savory caramel.

The culinary team at Flux in Lisbon is also testing the sauce. Chef Jason LaVerdiere, who is allergic to lobster and crab, hasn’t tasted it himself. But he reported that staff members describe it as “a very intense, crab/ocean-forward flavor experience,” akin to Southeast Asian fermented shrimp paste. “If there’s magic in the bottle,” he said he expects to showcase it in a broth or stir fry.

Marcus Im, co-owner of Onggi, a shop on Washington Avenue in Portland, says the prototype Maine product has a stronger point of view than the fish sauces he’s used to. (And he should know. Onggi sells a wide range of fermented foods, among them four fish sauces from Vietnam and one from Korea, that last made from mackerel and tangerines.) But that’s not a bad thing, he assured me. Im is trying the green crab sauce out in a batch of kimchi he’s fermenting now. He also thought a 1/2 tablespoon was the perfect amount to add to the pan of fried rice he was making with alliums, leafy greens and scrambled eggs.


“It’s an inspired idea,” he said about the local fish sauce. “And I think cooks will want to make it an ingredient in an overall local Maine diet.”

Waks Adams doesn’t know how quickly she’ll be able to bring a retail product to market. First, she needs to collate the feedback from the chefs and tweak the recipe to reflect their suggestions. Plus before she can manufacture anything, she needs to get her paperwork in line, find a site where she can scale up production, find capital, figure out packaging and hire help. But the prospect of hard work ahead doesn’t dampen her enthusiasm.

“I’m very excited!” Waks Adam said. “We could be holding in this little bottle a sauce that is both helping to solve an ecological problem and helping cooks make delicious plates of food.”

Pork Larb (made with prototype Maine Green Crab Sauce) and all the fixings. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Pork Larb

This dish, traditionally eaten in Laos and northern Thailand, is sweet, sour and savory, thanks to the fish sauce it includes. I am looking forward to the day when I can recommend that you buy Maine green crab sauce as a great substitute for the fish sauces now made in Southeast Asia and shipped here. You can find the Thai toasted rice powder at most Asian markets.

Serves 4


2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium red onion
1 serrano chili, minced
1 red Fresno chili, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound ground pork
1 tablespoon Thai toasted rice powder
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1-2 tablespoons fish sauce
Cilantro leaves
Mint leaves
Sliced cucumbers
Shredded red cabbage
Whole lettuce leaves

Peel the red onion and cut it in half. Dice one half. Slice the second half. Mince both the green and red chilies.

Pour the oil into a large skillet and place over medium heat. Add the diced onions and cook until soft, 3-4 minutes. Add the chilies and garlic, cook for 1 minute, until fragrant. Add the pork, using a wooden spoon to break it up, and cook until it is no longer pink. Sprinkle the rice powder over the pork, add the broth and cook, stirring for 2 minutes.

Remove the skillet from the heat, and stir in the lime juice, fish sauce and the reserved sliced onion.

Serve the larb warm, room temperature or cold with piles of cilantro and mint leaves, cucumbers, cabbage and lettuce leaves. Fill the lettuce leaves with the larb, herbs, cucumbers and cabbage and eat the way you would a wrap.

Local foods advocate Christine Burns Rudalevige is the editor of Edible Maine magazine and the author of “Green Plate Special,” both a column about eating sustainably in the Portland Press Herald and the name of her 2017 cookbook. She can be contacted at:

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