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.
Basic Vietnamese Fish Dipping Sauce (Nuoc cham)
Yield: @1 cup
- 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
- 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.