Every good Vietnamese cook needs to master this dipping sauce. It's used in many dishes to bring all the elements together. However, it can be easily botched, especially if your taste buds are not well versed in balancing subtle nuances between sour, sweet, salty and spicy. Additionally, flavoring with fish sauce is tough if you're not used to working with it everyday, not to mention the fact that fish sauce qualities differ from brand to brand and sometimes from lot to lot!
Growing up, I was given the task of being our family's dipping saucier. We are a serious group of eaters prone to chiding the cook for poor food preparation. So out of self-preservation, I devised the method below that's served me well over the years. Rather than mix everything together at once, I've broken up the process to simplify matters for the taste buds.
My preferred brand of fish sauce is Viet Huong's Three Crabs or Flying Lion, which are made in a light Vietnamese style, rather than the heavier Thai or Filipino styles. See the fish sauce buying guide for details. If you're a vegetarian or vegan, check the vegetarian fish sauce dipping sauce recipe (nuoc cham chay).
Basic Dipping Sauce (Nuoc Cham)
Makes ¾ cup
3 tablespoons lime juice (1 fat, thin skin lime)
2 tablespoons sugar
½ cup water
2 ½ tablespoons fish sauce
1 small garlic clove, finely minced
1 or 2 Thai chilis, thinly sliced or 1 teaspoon homemade chili garlic sauce or store bought (tuong ot toi)
1. Make limeade. Combine the lime juice, sugar and water, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Taste and as yourself this question: Does this limeade taste good? Adjust the flavors to balance out the sweet and sour.
2. Finish with fish sauce. Add the fish sauce and any of the optional ingredients. Taste again and adjust the flavors to your liking, balancing out the sour, sweet, salty and spicy. Aim for a bold, forward finish -- perhaps a little stronger than what you'd normally like. This sauce is likely to be used to add final flavor to foods wrapped in lettuce or herbs, which are not salted and therefore need a little lift to heighten the overall eating experience. My mother looks for color to gauge her dipping sauce. When it's a light honey or amber, she knows she's close.
Advance Preparation - This sauce may be prepared early in the day and left to sit at room temperature.
Variation - Use half lime juice and half Japanese rice vinegar for a less assertive sauce. Some delicately flavored dishes require this.