Editor's Note: Fish sauce is usually translated into English as nuoc mam. This dipping sauce uses nuoc mam as an ingredient and the dipping sauce is also sometimes called nuoc mam cham. See Vietnamese Condiments.
I've been making nuoc cham ever since I can remember. In fact, it was perhaps the first Vietnamese recipe I learned to make as a child. Nobody liked chopping the garlic, so I was stuck doing it. I became such an expert at making this sauce that every time we cooked, my mother would ask me to make it. The one difficult thing was to please both my mother and father simultaneously. She liked it sour, while he preferred it sweet. I resolved this quandary by creating a finely balanced version that allowed all of the various flavors to come out, and I continue to use it to this day.
A meal without nuoc cham is no meal at all. Served as a dipping sauce with many dishes such as cha gio, spring rolls; banh xeo, sizzling "sound" crêpes; and grilled meats and seafood; it is perhaps the most important sauce you will learn to make. There are several variations on this recipe. If you like your sauce spicier, mince rather than slice the chilies and garlic. Sometimes distilled rice wine vinegar is used to round out the flavor. My aunt Loan likes to slice and add shallots, saying they make the sauce sweeter. Try it different ways, mild or hot, more sweet or sour, with or without shallots. All are interesting. Following is my favorite version, which balances the sweet, sour, and spicy levels. I suggest you make 2 cups, as it goes quickly. Any left over can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.
Makes about 2 cups
5 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons water
1/3 cup fish sauce (nuoc mam)
1/2 cup lime or lemon juice (about 3 limes or 2 lemons)
1 large clove garlic, crushed, peeled, and sliced or minced
1 or more bird's eye or Thai chilies, seeded, and sliced or minced
1 shallot, peeled, thinly sliced, rinsed, and drained (optional)
Whisk together the sugar, water, fish sauce, and lime or lemon juice in a bowl until the sugar is completely dissolved. Add the garlic, chili, and shallot (if using), and let stand for 30 minutes before serving.
Authentic Vietnamese Cooking
Food from a Family Table
By Corinne Trang
Simon & Schuster, December 1999
256 pages, more then 50 black & white photographs
Glossary of ingredients
Recipe reprinted by permission.
Visit the Global Gourmet's Vietnam page.
Modified August 2007
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