Vietnamese dipping sauce
Nuoc mam cham is the accompaniment of most Vietnamese dishes and can be used as a dipping sauce or a dressing for your salads. I have made this sauce since I was ten years old. At every meal, I was the designated sauce maker. The trick with the sauce was not only to make it tasty, but it had to be visually appealing too, which meant the chopped garlic and red chillis had to be uniformed and floating on the surface, so when you are presented with the sauce bowls the little jewels were glistening. This is not as easy as it sounds because on occasion as a teenager I became rebellious and did not want to follow my mother’s exact instructions, and therefore made it my way. I would end up with just brown fish sauce and no glistening red or white dots on the surface of it.
I would always end up being scolded about this and at one particular family event where we had lot of people come over and my mother was busy rushing around cooking 20 different things and did not notice what I was doing, I took a short cut again, and by the time the guests sat down and my mother was ready to serve the nuoc mam cham, she stopped in her tracks and yelled at me. What happened here? Did you put the water in last again? I guiltily said no, but I was lying through my teeth. My mum was shaking her head and saying that we couldn’t serve this, that our family would be the laughing stock. Exasperated, she said to me, “You have brought shame to our family, as they will think we do not know how to cook! You must start again and follow my exact instructions!” A bit dramatic you may think, but to the Vietnamese food-obsessed nation, food is everything, and presentation is everything! Also, I just wanted my mother to quit her nagging, so I started again, following her exact steps.
Since that day I have always followed my mother’s recipe and never strayed! It turns out perfect nuoc mam cham every time.
Makes enough for 4-6 people
1/4 cup of fish sauce
1/4 cup of white sugar (I prefer to use brown sugar)
1/2 cup of warm water
1/4 cup of lemon juice or vinegar (depending on how strong the vinegar is, I would start off with putting in 60% first, then tasting and adjusting to the flavours.)
1 big clove of garlic
1. Finely chop the chilli and garlic and place into a large bowl.
2. Pour warm water, fish sauce and sugar into the bowl with the garlic and chilli. Mix this well until the sugar dissolves.
3. Then, put the vinegar or lemon juice in last; remember the key is to make the garlic and chilli float.
The sauce will store in the fridge for up to 3 months (in an airtight jar), but as always fresh is best. All ingredients can be found in your local Asian grocery store.
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