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Why Three Crabs Fish Sauce Is the Most Widespread in American-Made Kimchi


As a brand new immigrant to the U.S. with no household roots to tie me to a area, I used to be always shifting to totally different locations, following jobs and alternatives. Each time I landed in a brand new metropolis, I sought out the Korean American neighborhood to assist me settle in. Ajummas would invite me to their properties to speak, ask me how I used to be doing, whether or not I had a boyfriend, and the way my of us had been doing again in Korea. Inevitably they’d ask if I’d discovered how one can make Korean meals at dwelling. Once I’d point out that I make my very own kimchi, they’d inevitably suggest Three Crabs Fish Sauce. Their enthusiasm satisfied me to nod and smile knowingly, a silent settlement to their love for this model — although it was one I’d by no means seen, heard, or talked about after I lived in Korea.

Regardless of the title, the fish in Three Crabs Fish Sauce is anchovy, becoming the flavour of Korean fish sauces, that are normally made with both anchovy or the Pacific sand lance. However the historical past of the model is uniquely American. The pungent sauce is offered by the Viet Huong Fish Sauce firm, based in San Francisco within the Nineteen Eighties by a China-born businessman who lived in Vietnam earlier than immigrating to the U.S. through the Vietnam Warfare. The bottle boasts that the fish sauce is a product of Thailand and processed in Hong Kong. Neither of those nations hosts dominant Korean-speaking populations, however there’s a Korean title on the packaging (삼게표 멸치액젓).

I’m fascinated by the cult standing this fish sauce has achieved amongst Korean American ajummas, at the same time as extra Korean sauces change into out there stateside. Maangchi, the web’s Korean mother, recommends Three Crabs as her most well-liked model. A 2013 article in LA’s Korea Each day asks “Is there even a homemaker who doesn’t find out about Three Crabs?” with interviews from native ladies raving about Three Crabs. “I’ve tried all of the sauces available on the market, however I couldn’t discover something as flavorful,” says Alice Kim from Brea, California, who is legendary amongst her associates as an important cook dinner. An nameless girl credit the fish sauce as her secret ingredient, saying it’s particularly good for making scallion kimchi. With its uniquely American functions — that are countless and fluctuate from cook dinner to cook dinner — the sauce is reflective of a complete new diasporic meals tradition that developed individually from the motherland, with its personal favorites, classics, and quirks.


I grew up largely in Korea and moved to the U.S. as an grownup within the mid-aughts, and I’ve watched with bemusement the rising reputation of Korean meals and popular culture. Once I first got here to the U.S., I had solely three choices to purchase gochujang, the spicy soy-paste staple: Drive to the closest metropolis with a Korean grocery retailer; smuggle in Korean Air’s gochujang tubes that got here with the in-flight bibimbap meal; or anticipate HMart, a once-small native East Coast model referred to as Hanareum Mart, to open a web-based retailer, pooling collectively an order with my associates to attenuate delivery charges. Right this moment, HMart has shops in 14 states throughout the U.S., and I can spot gochujang in all places, even at Safeway. It’s good to have the ability to discover Korean elements so simply now.

However the reality is, Koreans had been latecomers to the U.S. in comparison with our neighbors in Northeast Asia. Whereas Chinese language and Japanese immigrants got here to the U.S. as early because the 1840s, the primary main wave of Korean immigrants was in 1903, adopted by a a lot bigger wave within the Nineteen Fifties and ’60s, following the Korean Warfare.

These Korean immigrants needed to eat meals like they did again dwelling, and the brand new Individuals usually needed to discover substitutes for harder-to-find elements. Some modifications appeared like average leaps of logic. When napa cabbage (배추 – baechu) was arduous to seek out, individuals made kimchi with cabbage (양배추 – yang baechu): In any case, the phrase for cabbage in Korean is solely “Western napa cabbage.” The popular rice for Korean Individuals is Calrose rice, additionally marketed as sushi rice, a medium-grain rice developed in California in 1948. Much like the dominant number of rice eaten in modern Korea after the Japanese occupation, it was a crop made to imitate Japanese rice that may be simply grown within the U.S. Different staples resembling tofu, soy sauce, and sesame oil could possibly be present in Chinese language and Japanese groceries, and though the flavors within the Korean manufacturers had been totally different, recipes may simply be adjusted to make them unnoticeable, normally through the use of barely much less sugar.

Three Crabs Fish Sauce turned a transparent winner amongst Korean Individuals over different manufacturers of fish sauce. Being from Seoul, I’m most aware of regional delicacies that makes use of fish sauce primarily for kimchi. Kimchi made with Three Crabs tastes sweeter and extra crisp in comparison with kimchi made with Korean fish sauce manufacturers, making a uniquely “American” taste that works properly with a heavier and extra red-meat-dominant Korean American delicacies. Kimchi made with Three Crabs cuts by way of the fattiness of pink meat; its distinctive umami profile, which hits extra towards the again of the palate, provides a pleasant nuance to barbecue.

Regardless of its rave reputation within the Korean American ajumma neighborhood, nonetheless, Three Crabs Fish Sauce is both remarkable or tough to seek out in Korea itself. Meals bloggers put up about this “new Southeast Asian fish sauce” throughout their travels. A handful of Korean retailers promote Three Crabs on-line, however not practically as a lot as Korean-brand fish sauces. Just lately on the Korean on-line platform Naver Purchasing, I discovered nearly 44,000 web sites promoting anchovy-based fish sauce. Solely seven of them had been promoting Three Crabs.


Delicacies that evolves within the diaspora is commonly framed within the context of necessity, the thought of “making do” with native elements when replicating these at house is not possible. It’s frequent to listen to arguments that meals from the diaspora is one way or the other much less “genuine” than meals from the homeland.

However these meals improvements could make it again to the motherland, too, suggesting {that a} tradition’s meals just isn’t strictly tied to the land the place it originates. LA galbi, or LA-style thin-cut marinated beef quick ribs, is an import now established again on the Korean peninsula. The popular method of chopping ribs in Korea is English fashion, the place every rib is separated then butterflied so {that a} lengthy strip of meat is connected to a thick piece of bone. Korean immigrants (the most important focus within the U.S. settled in Los Angeles County) found that American butchers most well-liked the flanken fashion of quick ribs, and an unintended good thing about this lower was that the meat marinated quicker. LA galbi was then transported to Korea within the ’70s and ’80s. I recall in elementary faculty that when a toddler introduced LA galbi of their lunchbox, all the youngsters would encompass them and ask for a bit, admiring this American method of consuming beef.

Korean meals in Korea is hyperlocal and regional as a result of lengthy indigenous historical past of its individuals dwelling on a peninsula divided by mountains and streams. Every area developed its personal traditions: from the closely spiced, seafood-based stews of the southern areas, to the buckwheat and potato pancakes of the jap mountains, to the chilly, white kimchi eaten within the north. Regardless of the comparatively quick time period since mass immigration, Korean American meals has developed into a singular department of regional Korean delicacies. This department carries the lives of recent immigrants to the U.S. and the tradition from the Asian immigrants who arrived earlier than them: It’s a reminder of the meals again dwelling, reimagined within the security of their kitchens.

I’m to see how Korean American meals will proceed to evolve, each along with and separate from Korean meals in Korea. Utilizing Three Crabs fish sauce — and Western, not napa cabbage — ends in a uniquely American fashion of kimchi with Thai, Hong Kongese, and Korean influences. The candy kimchi comprised of Three Crabs is now a part of my core reminiscence, as a lot because the meals I grew up with in Korea. If I ever transfer again to Korea, I think about I’d be grateful that the fish sauce is accessible on-line. And although it by no means retains so long as napa cabbage kimchi, I would decide up a head of Western cabbage immediately to make a small batch. The nostalgia jogs my memory of how we’ve realized to adapt on this nation.

Minyoung Lee is a author in Oakland. Subin Yang is a South Korean freelance illustrator at present primarily based in NYC.
Copy edited by Laura Michelle Davis



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