Vietnamese Fish Sauce Dip – nuoc mam cham

by White on Rice Couple on January 17, 2008

Vietnamese Fish Sauce Dip - nuoc mam cham

To take away fish sauce (Nước Mắm ) from the Vietnamese is like draining blood from a living soul, deflating a floating helium balloon or driving a nail into a tire. Slowly but surely, all life would slowly cease. Extreme as this may sound, this is how vital this golden elixir reigns in Viet cuisine ( well, at least in my family’s Viet cooking). Like how olive oil is to the Italians, Red wine is to the French, and ketchup is to my french fries, fish sauce is to the Vietnamese. It’s a pure, pungent nectar sent from the fermented fish gods to grace our breaths and Viet inspired dishes.

One of the very basic staples of fish sauce is the dipping sauce that can be used as a dip for spring rolls, as a dressing for noodles and rice or as a marinade for grilled meat. It’s like magic when you take fish sauce, mix it with a little lime, garlic and chili. Fish sauce in it’s pure form them becomes a little softer, subdued and more manageable on the palette. It then becomes the dip what Vietnamese call, Nước chấm or simply, Nước Mắm (depending on tradition).

Varying in so many degrees of sweet-ness, spicy-ness, garlicky-ness and lime-ness (sp?), each household will make claim to having “mom’s best” version. My mother believes that her garlic infused version reigns supreme ( with much support from her nail shop staff), but I feel that my variation is better just because it requires much less post breath mints.

Regardless of ego or family tradition, here are the basic principles of the fish dip sauce. Some traditions use one or all of the following ingredients. You decide how much more you want to explore.

-D.

Basic Vietnamese Fish Dipping Sauce (Nuoc cham)

Yield: @1 cup

Ingredients:

  • 1-2 crushed Garlic cloves (or finely minced), but crushed garlic really brings out oils, thus the flavor
  • 1 crushed or minced Thai Chili (customize your spice level)
  • 1/2 squeezed Lime (or about 1 heaping Tablespoon)
  • 1 Tablespoon Sugar
  • 1 teaspoon Rice Vinegar (optional)
  • 1/2 cup Fish Sauce (add more for extra fish sauce depth)
  • 1/2 cup Water

Directions:

    Mix all ingredients together well.

Note: As mentioned, these are just the basics, so RELAX !!! If your family uses more sugar, no vinegar or less lime then more power to you! These are just the basics to share with those who do want to make it for the first time. After that, experiment with the individual ingredients to create your own "personal" and "special" nuoc cham sauce.

Recipe Source: WhiteOnRiceCouple.com.

Hello! All images & content are copyright protected. Please do not use our images without prior permission. If you want to republish this recipe, please re-write the recipe in your own words, or simply link back to this post for the recipe. Thank you. And remember in making the recipes, if using table salt instead of kosher or sea salt, make sure you reduce the salt amount.


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{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Allison February 17, 2008 at 3:17 am

JACKPOT!!! Yay! I have been looking for a recipe for this… thank you thank you thank you! :D

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2 hong May 5, 2009 at 1:07 pm

Thanks for the recipe! I just started a food blog (yet another) and my first post and linked this to my com tam suon bi cha post.

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3 Jennifer May 14, 2009 at 12:40 pm

Where is the recipe? I can’t find it and I would love to get it!

Thanks!

Jen

Recipe is up now. It did lay on our recipes archive, but that had to be moved. We put it up on the post now. Thanks for the interest! -WORC

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4 shawn July 12, 2009 at 8:06 pm

My dad did a couple of tours in Vietnam and whenever we can get him to talk about it there, he always brings up his love of “nouc cham”

His birthday is coming up soon and i would love to order him some! Where can i find it???

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5 thy December 6, 2009 at 12:18 pm

well.do youlive near any big city,search for a asian market i think you could find some.Uasually they only sell the pure fish sauce,you will have to do the lime ,garlic ,pepper and sugar yourself. you should choose the Thai pepper or goat horn pepper(red one) if you could .when i do the Nuoc Cham to eat with spring roll,i would use a lot of sugar and very little water,to make the sauce become thick.And when i make Nuoc Cham to eat with egg rolls and vermicili i would use quite alot of sugar and water.this is the soulthern style to make Nuoc Cham,we add more sugar than any other area.

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6 Marc August 25, 2009 at 9:24 am

I actually have quite a strange question for you regarding Vietnamese food: I’d ask my mom, but I am afraid my Vietnamese isn’t good enough to describe what I am thinking of. Hopefully, you know what I am talking about.

I am thinking of a “banh” that is made of flour, looks sort of greenish, and is steamed covered in banana leaves. Inside, there is minced meat and some sort of mushroom, also minced. The flour in itself is pretty sticky. I cannot seem to remember its name, but remember Little Saigon as a kid, and that my parents would get it for me now and then. Oh, and it was sort of chewy, because of the flour.

Can you help a guy out? I am going nuts thinking of its name.

Marc

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7 White on Rice Couple August 26, 2009 at 4:58 pm

Marc- It’s called banh gio.

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8 thy December 6, 2009 at 12:23 pm

i think i could be banh gio or banh u

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9 Van January 28, 2010 at 9:31 pm

Hi,
Just wanna point out to Marc about his post.
It depends on the shape of the “ba’nh”.

Banh gio` is more like what you described. It should have a pyramid-like shape.
It has minced mead, black wood ear mushroom. It dough is somewhat transparent. Wrapped in banana leaf.

Banh Nam – is also in banana leaf but it shape is almost flat with a little meat in middle. Its dough is not clear but whitish.

Banh bot loc – has clear dough and a bit chewy. It has shrimp and minced meat. This one is steamed.

I hope that helps.

Diane,
I am a new fan of your blog. Wonderful blog. Thank you.

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10 tuyet October 20, 2009 at 8:46 pm

hey marc im not exactly sure what your talking about. But my mom makes banh loc and it is made up of chopped up meat, shrimp, celantro, black pepper and is first sauted in a pan with oyster sauce and alittle bit of water. she makes the dough and then wraps the mix into that dough where it kinda looks like a fan shape. but there are many ways poeple wrap up the mix. then the banana leaves . and u can dip it with nuoc mam. i hope this helpz

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11 Hang February 13, 2010 at 7:51 pm

This has to be misprint because the amount of fish sauce should NEVER be equal to the amount of water used. It should be about 1 part fish sauce to about 4 parts water (or something like that). I had to really doctor this recipe to get my fish sauce to taste right. It is WAY too salty as written. When done, the color of the sauce should be like a light honey, not dark honey or molasses.

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12 White on Rice Couple February 13, 2010 at 8:21 pm

Hang- as I mentioned in the recipe, there is no right or wrong way to do it. Some like it watered down and some will eat it straight out of the bottle.
As with any recipe, they vary from region to region, family to family. And of course, there are different brands with different levels of saltyness. Everyone has a different tolerance, as well as a different way that they make it.

So NO, this is not a misprint. Some of my family and friends like it with this ratio. Others prefer more fish sauce. There is no such thing as WAY TOO SALTY, because it’s all a personal preference.
I’ve traveled all throughout VietNam with family living in all different regions. I’ve very OPEN-MINDED to understand that every region and family tradition has their own FISH SAUCE RECIPE.

I NEVER say NEVER. There is no RIGHT or WRONG way to make fish sauce. As I learned from my Grandmother (still living in VietNam), food is enjoyed most when it suits your taste bud, tolerance and tradition.

Just talking to all the women in my families nail shops, you’d be surprised at how much every person’s fish sauce recipe varies. And that’s proof coming from Vietnamese women from all regions and generations.

Cam On Rat Nhieu,
diane

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13 Hang February 13, 2010 at 9:49 pm

Hmmmm….I see what you’re saying. However, it’s my experience (limited as they be), that the dipping sauce typically seen served with egg rolls or bun is typically not of the variety you submitted. I assume since you’re writing this blog in English, it was meant to be directed towards a certain type of palate. And I may be wrong, but most of those palates are used to a sweeter and lighter fish sauce….the kind that was brought over by the Vietnamese whom came over en masse back in the 70s and 80s. I was born in Laos of Vietnamese descent, but the dipping sauce my mother served at home was similar to thse served in most restaurants I’ve tasted in Wichita, KS, and Dallas, TX (where I currently reside). Now, with that said, there are many different varieties of fish dipping sauces, but I assume you were putting out one that is of a general use and sought by most Americans. I apologize in advance if I am totally off base. Really enjoy the pictures on your blog!

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14 White on Rice Couple February 13, 2010 at 11:58 pm

Hi Hang- thanks for the discussion! this is great.

The sauces that maybe come out of Wichita, KS and Dallas, can certainly be different from what is served here on the West Coast. But again, it all varies depending on the cook.

I can pick out huge differences in flavors and ratio’s of fish sauce preparations from restaurants within 2 miles of each other. There are restaurants here in Little Saigon Westminister that will serve straight up fish sauce with thin slices of chilies in it, with no water added.

It’s very difficult for me to make a generalization that my recipes are for a certain type of palate. i write my recipes from family experiences, these are dishes that I ate in my family. They are not representative of what is definitive of Vietnamese cuisine, nor are they in any way out to explain the regional preferences of Vietnamese Americans. These are just how my family ate and they are certainly different from every single one of my Vietnamese friends and neighbors.

I was part of that wave that came to the US in the 70′s, but that wouldn’t necessarily be vindictive of any particular style of fish sauce. Rather, the Southern Vietnamese palate is typically sweeter, thus producing an often sweeter based fish sauce dip. Many of my Southern Vietnamese friends and colleagues like their food on the sweeter side. My cousins in Saigon definitely like their food, sauces and broths slightly sweeter.

My part of the family that comes from Northern Vietnam definitely like their food less sweet. They have opened restaurants and their food is also very representative of their style of regional cooking.

I don’t think you have limited English at all. I commend you on your excellent writing and communicative skills. If it makes you feel any better, I’m more than happy to discuss all this in Vietnamese with you. I’m fluent in Vietnamese. We can chat on the phone!

Again, thank you for this discussion.
-diane

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15 Hang February 14, 2010 at 2:55 pm

After I sent the response last night, I did think there was a more regional difference between North and South Vietnamese cuisine. Although my family hailed from Laos, we are of Northern Vietnamese origins but somehow became more Southern in our cuisine (probably living in Laos with it’s Thai influence). If I recall correctly, my sister-in-law is from Hyphong and tends toward more salty and tart foods. She had to acquire the taste for the sweeter stuff when she came over 8 years ago – which has definitely been detrimental to her waistline! ;o) Since I was googling for a fish dipping sauce for my egg rolls, I just ignorantly assumed it was the same type of sweet fish sauce recipe given out at other sites. I would also assume others googling may think the same, so maybe an end note to explain the difference between the fish sauces would help, as I was disappointed to find out my dipping sauce was much saltier than what is “typically” served. I quoted that as I am sure your experience and knowledge is much more vast than mine, but mine is probably more “westernized” (I did grow up in Wichita, KS!!). Luckily I knew how to fix the recipe to my liking, but others whom stumble upon your site may not and will end up with a lot of fish sauce that tastes nothing like they tasted in the restaurants. And I believe – although I have no evidence – those whom come to your site are of a Westernized diet searching for a general fish sauce that was popularized by the Southern Vietnamese. I’d hate to see them toss out the fish sauce because their expectations were not met. But again, maybe I am still assuming too much about the audience you are writing for without any proof what I say is correct.

Regardless, thanks for the discussion and I wish you a “chuc mung nam moi” in the year of the Tiger and a Happy Valentine’s Day!

Hang

P.S. I bow to your fluency in Vietnamese as I lack the ability to truly communicate in my own language. Then again, I was born in Laos and grew up in Wichita. That should explain everything! LOL!

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16 White on Rice Couple February 14, 2010 at 4:52 pm

Hang- I don’t think I need to have an end note as to why my ratio is more strong than others. Like I said, there is no collective “restaurant” version of fish sauce.
I’ve been to many Vietnamese restaurants that have very strong fish sauce. As mentioned in my recipe, this is my Mom’s family recipe, not a restaurant recipe.

I’ve had great response to my recipe from both “westernized” and “ethnic” Vietnamese. But as with any recipe, everyone adapts it to their own taste.

Honestly, I think you’re thinking about his too much girlfriend! Just dip and eat! ;)
Who cares if I like my fish sauce saltier and stronger? I know of many folks who eat my recipe (both viet and american) and love the results. When they go eat more watered down versions, they don’t like it.

Also, have you looked at any Vietnamese cookbooks for written in both Vietnamese and English? you’d be surprised at how much more concentrated and salty these recipes are.

You are Laos and grew up in Wichita, so those influence alone show how different our “Vietnamese” food influences are.

Happy New Year!
xo
diane

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17 Jonathan Nguyen January 31, 2011 at 10:58 am

I’m from Wichita, KS and the nuoc mam in the restaurants is a bit sweet IMO, but my parents are Hue (country ass Vietnamese) and we like it salty, hence the 1:1 ratio is typically correct. The sweeter nuoc mam is great though for over banh beo and other steamed doughs for teh sweet, but I like my nuoc mam salty for eating as dipping with meats, like thit nuong etc. So the original author is correct in that there is a variety of flavor palettes out there, depending on what you like.

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18 Emiko July 13, 2012 at 6:35 pm

My mother is from south Vietnam and this is more or less how she makes her nuoc mam (she calls this one “nuoc mam oc” actually because “nuoc mam” is the fish sauce by itself that you buy bottled) though I would agree with you that her recipe calls for less nuoc mam and more water than is called for here. Again, there is no right or wrong way to do it but my mother’s version is exactly how her family prepared it in their small village to the far south of Saigon so I don’t think it would be geared towards “Americanized” palates. The sweeter version, often with carrots, served in restaurants is what my mother claims is geared towards Americans who can’t handle the full flavor of the nuoc mam with the hot chilis. I guess it just depends on your point of view. I personally don’t care for the sauce served in restuarants and never use it. And I prefer my nuoc mam oc even spicier than my mom so I always add a lot more chili. :)

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19 Jennifer March 12, 2010 at 4:15 pm

Wow, lots of debate here! It’s true, there’s no true exact measurements for how to make nuoc mam cham (like many other dishes in general). From what I know from Vietnamese cuisine, your recipe includes everything that is needed.

I, myself, don’t truly measure anything (just eyeball) but I do probably add 2 or 3x the amount of water to fish sauce (when I make like a bucket’s worth to last me a while, lol). I like to taste as I go, when whippin’ up nuoc cham. Also I like to use all limes instead of vinegar but my mom prefers vinegar.

I do notice lots of differences when I buy Viet food with the nuoc cham or at Viet restaurants. Food to go, for example, like to serve mild and sweet NMC with just a little chili or none at all! Oh and also, I think that’s true that in So. Vietnam, NMC is sweeter. My family’s from central VN (Hue) and boy oh boy, they like it extremely spicy!!

Oh, I really just love fish sauce — I think I add it in 80% of what I cook, even non Asian foods, lol (that plus soy sauce). UMAMI. yum.

Thanks for posting a great recipe!

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20 Frank November 17, 2010 at 9:39 pm

Since I’m not a regular reader,this isn’t a comment, just a question. If you’ve got an answer for me,please e-mail me directly. Forty years ago, when I lived in a tin shed in Bien Hoa, our endlessly patient housekeeper would buy us fresh fruit when she did her own shopping. I’ve never been able to track down my favorite in the U.S. It was called mang cau (NO guess on the diacritical markings). It was about the size of a walnut, glossy pinkish red with white flesh and an apricot like seed in a central cavity. The taste was somewhat like an apple. Any idea you might have about alternate names and where to buy them would be greatly appreciated. The closest I’ve ever found has the same name, but looks entirely different. Thanks

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21 Jasmine October 11, 2011 at 11:32 am

I believe you’re talking about mangosteen! It’s been becoming popular in the States–I’ve seen it in Snapple drinks and stuff

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22 Frank October 12, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Thanks for taking time to answer, but I don’t think I’m looking for mangosteens. The fruit I’m looking for isn’t segmented inside a rind. The peel, like the flesh, is more like that of an apple, and has a single free stone. I remember that when squeezed they would pop open & you could pour the seed out before eating.

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23 Emiko July 13, 2012 at 7:01 pm

You’re not talking about lychees, are you?

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24 Alexia September 11, 2012 at 11:30 pm

I think you are talking about a cherimoya (sour-sop). There is a Vietnamese smoothie that I get all the time called Sinh To Mang Cua, and the flavor is like a custard apple.

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25 Vi Nguyen February 19, 2011 at 7:41 am

I grew up in Mobile, Alabama. There is actually a large population of Vietnamese people. In my time I have traveled to North Carolina, New York, New Jersey, New Orleans and i currently live in Philadelphia. I have always made it a point to eat at a Vietnamese restaurant, sometimes more than one and I have yet to find one that beats Yen’s Restaurant of Mobile, Al. Everywhere I have been they are either ok, or just plain mediocre. I dont know what it is but it just tastes better from the south. Best springrolls, eggrolls, bun bo hue, Bun thit nuong, Pho dac biet, curry…ect. Living in Philadelphia for the past two years has been rough, im no longer five minutes away from the most delicious food on the planet. I have to go to China Town to get over priced vietnamese food that doesnt even compare to the richness of Yen’s Restaurant. Recently they did open the largest Asian Market ive ever seen. ive been lucky enough to buy food from there but i dont know how to make very many vietnamese dishes and its so precious id just screw it up. But i am thankful that its there at least. Before i do my regular grocery shopping, i stop in the asian market first. But thank you for posting this recipe. Im the only one out of my family who actually searched for the recipe so i can make it myself.

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26 Vi Nguyen February 22, 2011 at 7:29 am

if i make this, store it in a regualr tupperware container, and leave it on the counter, not put it in the fridge, does it go bad? i figured i would try leaving it out first but when i open the lid it smells a little sour/spoiled. i only left it out for 24 hours. Is it bad to eat it?

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27 White on Rice Couple February 22, 2011 at 8:08 am

We’ve left ours out for weeks and it’s never gone bad. It changes as it sits longer, wether in the fridge or on the counter due to the ingredients merging together more. Sometimes we’ll have to liven it up with some fresh lime juice.
Another tip: When cleaning your container, to deodorize it, rub it one of your used lime rinds, then soak it for a little bit with water and the rind, then wash like normal.

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28 ash12 April 2, 2011 at 8:54 pm

Thanks for this! I had vietnamese food for the first time tonight and fell in love. This is a great starting place for me to cook on, so thanks for the article!

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29 Maggie August 26, 2011 at 9:14 am

What a story! What community! If I ever get to your neck of the woods I will definitely get my nails done and pray that eating is going on that day. I just love your blog, I love your garden, I saw it on You-tube. It looks gigantic- how big is your plot? What you have done with the trees and arches is amazing.

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30 Maggie August 26, 2011 at 9:16 am

Ps. What is your favorite brand of fish sauce?

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31 Jasmine October 11, 2011 at 9:38 pm

So my mother sent me to college with pure fish sauce and a sweet chili sauce–made of sugar, vinegar, chili, garlic. Do you think she meant for me to use that to dilute with fish sauce and water? Anyone ever try this?

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32 Ryan January 29, 2012 at 7:54 pm

I love love love vietnamese food and specially this sauce. Luckily I live near the Orange County area where Vietnamese restaurants are plentiful, but would low to have this sauce in stock.

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33 Cheese with Noodles May 14, 2012 at 6:09 pm

I cannot get Thai Chilis where I live in Alaska. The store does have chili paste and chili garlic sauce though, could I make the nuoc cham with a little bit of that instead and have it turn out reasonably accurately? This looks really good, for dinner I now want to make spring rolls and nuoc cham!

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34 Cheese with Noodles May 15, 2012 at 1:25 am

Never mind, I just used Sriracha sauce because I had it in the fridge and it’s made of chilis! Worked out great, we loved the nuoc mam cham. I posted about the spring roll recipe I made on my blog and referred to your recipe. Here is the post if you are interested: http://cheesewithnoodles.blogspot.com/2012/05/fresh-spring-rolls-with-tofu-and-nuoc.html Thanks so much for the great recipe!

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35 Dawn-Renée October 12, 2012 at 10:41 am

Based on the picture…is it possible to CAN this? (Fingers crossed here)

There is a restaurant here in Denver (New Saigon; http://www.newsaigon.com) that, well, EVERYTHING I’ve tried has been fantastic, but they serve a Duck Salad (GOÛI VÒT) to which I am completely ADDICTED. We are lucky enough to have many Asian markets here, so it’s fairly easy to get what I need to replicate this. Until now, I was missing the fish sauce dressing. New Saigon also serves this dish with huge shrimp chips, but I haven’t been able to find those.

I AM SO EXCITED! lol.

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36 Dawn-Renée October 12, 2012 at 10:43 am

one more question…could I use sambal oelek in place of fresh thai chilis?

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37 White on Rice Couple November 20, 2012 at 9:53 pm

Usually we’ll just find whatever chili we can to substitute, rather than a chili paste. It tends to give a better layering of flavors rather than muddling them all together, but in a pinch sambal oelek would still work fine.

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38 Mjay June 9, 2013 at 5:46 am

My recipe is the same, except I use less sugar, and two whole limes! and 3 cloves of crushed garlic, and 5 crushed thai red chili peppers, and also added to that is crushed ginger. My concoction is deadly but delicious. 1/2 cup fish sauce and 1/2 filtered water.

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39 Lucy March 14, 2014 at 9:23 am

Good recipe, this is similar to the one my mom makes and she is from Saigon. When I make it at home for my husband who’s white, I tone down the flavors by adding water. Even within my parents’ household, my dad makes a different version than my mom. Instead of adding water, he adds coconut water or Coco Rico. I had a friend whose mom has a Vietnamese restaurant in Austin and her secret ingredient in the nuoc mam/cham was Sprite!

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