Diane’s Vietnamese Fish Dipping Sauce (Nước Mắm Chấm)

I may be Vietnamese, but I’m no expert in Vietnamese food, nor have I ever met a true Vietnamese food expert. Every time I get together with elder Vietnamese cooks who have traveled through different parts of Vietnam, their list of new food discoveries grows longer by the day. They are always humbled by the vast differences in not just regional food differences, but differences within each family household and tradition.

It wasn’t until towards the end of my 24 years (yup, I was a manicurist for 24 years!) of working in my Mother’s nail shop and talking food with her Vietnamese staff that I realized how much I was going to miss this crazy but collectively unique group of passionate ladies. They all grew up from different regions of Vietnam, hailing from the furthest Northern forests to the most Southern hot villages of the country. What made me adore our often curious and heated conversations was their passionate food traditions and beliefs. I learned so much from them as I stalked them every time they ate their lunch. But I was respectful and waited until they finished before I bombarded them with all my food questions.

Diane's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Dip Recipe Nuoc Mam Cham | @whiteonrice

Diane's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Dip Recipe Nuoc Mam Cham | @whiteonrice

Diane's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Dip Recipe Nuoc Mam Cham | @whiteonrice

I listened intently, like a curious kid but with an analytical mind, like a Grad Student, to their beliefs on what made the best pot of phổ noodle soup and why their sticky rice was more flavorful and moist than the neighbor’s across the street. Some claimed to make the best braised fish in claypot because it was their Grandmother’s recipe. And to top off the challenge, Grandma gave birth and raised 9 kids in a 500 square foot shack along the rice paddy fields in central Vietnam during the war.

Ok, as soon as someone says their recipe is the best and only way to make it because “Grandmother of 9 kids and 15 grandkids” made it, I won’t ever argue. If the matriarch of your family made your seafood stock a certain way and you say it’s the best, I will nod respectfully as I slurp my way towards the bottom of the soup bowl. Family cooking traditions and recipes are topics I would never question or challenge, because who am I to say that it’s wrong? It’s only different, but never wrong.

There’s no right nor wrong in family traditions, food ways and recipes. I respect that because my own family food traditions are like no other household. My family experiences are what sets the foundation for my understanding of my Vietnamese food. The best part about learning my food traditions is that there are gazillions of other Vietnamese families who don’t cook and eat just-like-me, so there’s so much more discovery on the horizon waiting for me to hear, taste and document!

Diane's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Dip Recipe Nuoc Mam Cham | @whiteonrice

Diane's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Dip Recipe Nuoc Mam Cham | @whiteonrice

Vietnamese Fish Sauce dip is one example that often provokes heated, passionate debates. Why? It’s because folks are so obsessed about eating it all their lives and there’s no singular recipe that is definitive of what this quintessential dip should be. It varies between regions, villages, neighborhoods, families and even varies between individuals within each family. Even within my family of 12, not everyone agrees on how salty, sweet, garlicky or spicy it should be.

So I’m not here to argue or listen to any banter as to why my version is “wrong”, as I’ve previously heard in the past from “readers” about my family Vietnamese recipes. I’m here to to say this is MY version and there’s a gazillion different variations that can come out of my recipe. Make it your own, to your personal taste and we can all be friends.

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.

Diane's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Dip Recipe Nuoc Mam Cham | @whiteonrice

Diane's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Dip Recipe Nuoc Mam Cham | @whiteonrice

Fish sauce in its pure straight-from-the-bottle form can be pretty aggressive to both the nose and the palette. Basically, it can totally stink. But it can become a little softer, subdued and more manageable on the palette when mixed with some acid, sweetness and spice. It then becomes the dip what Vietnamese call, Nước chấm or simply, Nước Mắm (depending on tradition). 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.

Video of me making Nước Mắm Chấm

Fish sauce dip has so many different 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 more palatable just because it requires much less post-breath mints.

You decide how much more you want to explore by adding more or less of what ever you like. As long as you’re making it and enjoying this dip, that makes me uber happy!

-diane

Here’s a Few of our Favorite Spring Roll Ingredients and Tools:

It can sometimes be hard to find good spring roll ingredients and tools. Here’s some of the favorites:

Three Ladies Rice Paper Wrappers – Love these wrappers. Easy to work with. Consistently one of the best wrappers we’ve found.
Rice Paper Wrapper Water Bowl – The perfect bowl for dipping the rice paper at the table. These have been life changers when it comes to our spring roll parties. Easy for everyone to dip and takes up so much less table space. 
OXO Julienne Tool – This little tool makes julienning the carrots and other ingredients a breeze. 

Flying Lion Fish Sauce – This has been our house fish sauce for decades. Great stuff! We’ll use it to make our dipping sauces as well as marinades.
Red Boat Fish Sauce – 100% all natural first press extra virgin Vietnamese fish sauce. A solid craft fish sauce producer.
Koon Chun Hoisin Sauce – Our house favorite hoisin sauce. Great flavor. We use it to make a dipping sauce for spring rolls.

More of my Vietnamese recipes and random childhood stories (Family-inspired of course!)

Diane’s Vietnamese Fried Chicken Recipe

Vietnamese Chicken Salad Recipe

My Vietnamese pickled carrots and daikon recipe

Diane’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Dip (Nước Mắm/Chấm)

Total Time: 10 minutes

Adjust the flavors to your liking. Everyone has their own version and this is my favorite ratio that isn’t too watered down like many restaurant versions. I like the balance of bold flavors in the fish sauce, garlic, chiles and most importantly, acid from the fresh lime juice. I don’t make mine too sweet either, but it’s still delicious if you like yours sweeter. Have fun to fine tune your favorite ratios!

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup (60ml) fish sauce (brand I use is Flying Lion Phu Quoc )
  • 1/2 cup (120ml) water
  • 3 Tablespoons (45ml) fresh lime juice, or to taste
  • 2-3 large cloves of garlic (preferably mashed in a mortar and pestle but minced will work fine)
  • 1 Tablespoon (15ml) sugar, or to taste
  • 1-2 fresh thai chiles, to taste
  • 1 teaspoon (5ml) crushed fresh ginger root (optional for another variation)

Directions:

  1. Combine all ingredients (fish sauce, water, lime juice, garlic, sugar, chiles, and optional ginger) in a bowl and stir until the sugar is fully dissolved. Or in a mason jar, add all ingredients and shake the dickens out of it.
  2. Serve the dip on or with whatever your heart desires. And don't forget to offer a side of breath mints after the meal. You can store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 weeks. Enjoy!
Recipe Source: WhiteOnRiceCouple.com.

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Recipe Note for Salt: All recipes containing salt are based on kosher or sea salt amounts, not table salt. If using table salt, reduce the amount used to taste.


{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }
  1. Pamela Valente

    I lived in South Vietnam (Nha Trang) for six months in 1974. Almost every meal I ate in a Vietnamese household was served with Nuoc Mam sauce. A Vietnamese friend showed me how it was made. It started by hanging fish on chicken wire and allowing them to rot and drop oil in a tray. That oil was the base for the sauce – which is why it had such a strong odor! Ive never tasted any other sauce that smelled so bad but tasted so good. Can’t wait to try yours because I’ve tried making it many times.

    1. Todd & Diane

      Hi Pamela, wow you totally had the hard-core version where you start with making the actual fermented fish drippings! My version is a hack LOL cause I actually buy the bottle of fish sauce to start! 🙂 That’s awesome you lived there and really got to experience fish sauce being made (home style) first hand!

  2. Nancie

    Would be thrilled if you could provide a phonetic pronunciation of this dish… Is it “Nock-Mom (Chawm)”? Or “New-Ock Mom”? Or something completely different? Please help a Sister out. 😀

    1. Trung Tran

      Easiest way to say it is (Noke mum). The “u” is very slight. There’s intonation involved but it’s not that important.

    2. Todd & Diane

      Hi Nancie, I’ll definitely have to work on that in a video form! But there’s so many different dialects that everyone has a slightly different tonal accent, which can be hugely different. I’ll have to recruit some of my Mom’s past nail staff to get different regional tones. 🙂

  3. Anh Thu

    This is one of the best food posts not to mention Vietnamese food I have read in some time. Thank you. This captures so eloquently how I feel about Vietnamese food in general but about all the lovely variations of different dishes that I’ve been lucky to grow up eating made by my aunties and extended family. It has started a lifetime love of food and has made me more adventurous in my exploration of all cuisine.

    As someone whose family hails from northern Viet Nam and was born in the south and has a wonderful community of friends from all over Viet Nam and the world, I can’t wait to try out your version. I have yet to try adding the ginger root!

    1. Todd & Diane

      Hi bạn Anh, thanks so much and my family hails from the North as well but settled in Da Nang after the 1959 split to escape communism. My version is way much lighter than my Mom’s version. Her version is potent. My brother tries my recipe and think it’s too watered down. But not as watered down as the Vietnamese restaurants! LOL.

  4. Mary Seltzer

    Do you have a recipe for the Viet pickled carrots and daikon? Thank you.

  5. Than Nguyen

    I recently discovered your blog. I love your writing and the recipes. Thanks for sharing and keep up the great work!

    1. Todd & Diane

      oh cảm ơn nhiều bạn Than!

  6. Linda

    OMG, you must have been a toddler when you started working in your mom’s shop! I bet it was fun to listen to all the ladies. My mom had to walk 4 miles (barefoot) past the “Indian village” to go to school when she was a little girl. I think the walk got longer and steeper every time she told the story…..lol. (Actually, she was born in 1912 in very rural Arkansas, so there’s no telling…) I tried making hamburgers with fish sauce to get the “fifth flavor”, but it didn’t work for me, and I was very disappointed.

    The dish that my mom made that I have never been able to duplicate is simple – fried potatoes! Crispy on the outside, melt in your mouth on the inside….sigh.

    I so enjoy the emails I get from the two of you, plus it’s nice to hear from southern California cooks! (I’m a San Diego girl). Keep up the good work, and telling us about it.

    xo Linda

    1. Todd & Diane

      Maybe you didn’t use enough fish sauce in your burgers. 🙂 But if it still doesn’t work out than maybe it’s not for you and that’s totally cool! And yup, I started in the nail shop when I was 18 years old and it was the best experience ever. It helped me maintain my fluency in the Vietnamese language which I’m totally grateful for because I can have great conversations with my elders.

  7. Alessandra (@lemonandtomato)

    Loved this. Im a firm believer there is not “set” recipe ever.

    1. Todd & Diane

      Agree! And especially for this type of fish sauce dip there’s so family styles that no two versions are alike.

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