Nước Mắm: An Addition to the Holy Trio
Catsup, mustard, and mayo—stock the typical refrigerator, but most of us have grown fond of other specialty items, too. I enjoy Nước mắm, the Vietnamese dipping sauce.
I was attracted to the crisp, amber-colored sauce after having it served in little, porcelain bowls alongside orders of spring rolls. This mainstay of Thai and Vietnamese cooks is a versatile condiment for any dish needing help.
Nước mắm is one of the ingredients that energizes 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 (Nước mắm) is mixed with lime juice and hot chilies, and other ingredients added, depending on the region in Vietnam where it originates.
Nước mắm 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. For best results, I buy mine from the Truong family at their restaurant, Banh Mi So, located on S. 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 this recipe.
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. Sorta like apple pie does in American folklore.
Nước mắm: Anchovies and water that have been allowed to ferment for eight months. (Don’t let this be off putting. It brings a lovely umami taste to a dish.)
Nước cham: A dipping sauce made from diluted nước mắm, (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.