I’m not the ‘frig inspector here to taunt you because your celery is limp or your strawberries wear little, fur jackets. I want to inquire about your favorite condiments, those you keep on the refrigerator door, well within reach. The holy trio—catsup, mustard, and mayo—stock the typical refrigerator, but most of us have grown fond of other specialty items, too. I use Sriracha liberally—the spicy red sauce favored by those who want to add pizzazz to certain dishes. But mostly I enjoy nuoc cham, the Vietnamese dipping sauce. I was attracted to the crisp, amber-colored sauce after having it served in little bowls alongside orders of spring rolls. This mainstay of Thai and Vietnamese cooks is a versatile condiment, one that’s used to energize soups, salads, casseroles, appetizers, and stir fries throughout Southeast Asia. It also works well as a dipping sauce for meat, seafood, and veggies and for drizzling on rice.
To create the dipping sauce, fermented fish (nuoc mam) is mixed with lime juice and hot chilies, and other ingredients added, depending on the region in Vietnam where it originates. Nuoc mam has only two ingredients: fermented anchovies and water, which makes for the distinctive umami taste. It’s tricky creating the proper balance of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy in the dipping sauce, so I often buy mine from the Truong family at their restaurant, Bahn Mi So, located on Grand.
But wherever you get the sauce, Mai Pham, author of Pleasure of the Vietnam Table, says it should be in a glass jar and, preferably, light honey or amber in color. If you’re adventuresome enough to make some yourself, try Mai Pham’s recipe from her book. The ingredients are few and the assembly minimal. Making your own will give you an excuse to buy a mortar and pestle, which she recommends for concocting the mixture.
Pham quotes an old Vietnamese proverb to emphasize the importance of the sauce in her culture: “Without good fish sauce, the father’s daughter will not shine.” In other words, a good fish sauce makes you a good cook.
Nuoc mam: Anchovies and water that have been allowed to ferment for eight months. The premium grade is sold as nuoc mam nhi to be used in making dipping sauce. Nuoc man thuong and nuoc man khom, made from the later pressings of the anchovies, have less flavor and are better suited for cooking.
Nuoc cham: A dipping sauce made from diluted nuoc mam, (the concentrated fish sauce above), chilies, garlic, sugar, and lime juice. A must at every Vietnamese table, no matter what is served. If you’re still confused, don’t worry. Many Vietnamese cooks use the terms interchangeably.