Refreshing, punchy, and tangy! My go-to dish at a Vietnamese restaurant is the vermicelli noodle salad packed with lots of herbs. The biggest reason, aside from the fact that it's super yum and refreshing, is the nuoc mam dipping sauce!
The beauty of nuoc mam is that it's a perfectly balanced sauce that's sweet, salty, sour, garlicky and spicy all at the same time! Just when you think this sauce can't get any better, it takes just 5 minutes to make! Less if you're quick around the kitchen.
Not limited to noodle salads, nuoc mam is used in many Vietnamese dishes ranging from meats to rice to noodles to spring rolls and more! One delicious example: Vietnamese Pork Chops.
What is nuoc mam?
Nuoc mam (or the proper spelling: Nước mắm) actually means 'fish sauce'. Fish sauce is a liquid condiment that is widely used in South-East Asian cooking. It's pungent, salty and packed with umami (savoury) goodness. Many popular Asian recipes such as pho, pad thai, larb, shaking beef, Vietnamese grilled pork, etc all use fish sauce! This is why they're all sooo good!
Having said this, nuoc mam is also used interchangeably as a Vietnamese dipping sauce that uses fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and water at the minimum. Ie, this recipe and hence the name.
- Fresh lime juice - adds a delicious sour taste with a hit of citrus freshness which complements the fish sauce extremely well. The key here is to use fresh lime juice. If you don't have lime juice, you can get away with using white vinegar or rice wine vinegar. Although, you'll be missing that desirable citrus freshness.
- Some Vietnamese restaurants would use a combination of lime juice and vinegar to cut back on costs. If you compare the ones you get from restaurants and this recipe, you might just find that this version is a lot more citrusy and zesty! This is why homemade is always better, right!?
- Bird's eye chilli - the perfect choice of chilli for this dipping sauce. For a more subtle heat level, opt for large red chillis - they're way less spicy.
- Caster sugar - can use palm sugar or brown sugar for a richer flavour due to the molasses content they have.
Fish sauce is a liquid derived from the fermentation of fish (usually anchovies), salt and water over a long period of time. At first whiff straight out of the bottle, fish sauce is very pungent and fishy. On its own, it's not so good but combined with other ingredients, it's a superstar.
There are many different brands of fish sauce on the market with varying shades from light to dark. Usually, the darker coloured ones have a more complex flavour.
Which one to pick comes down to personal preferences. I'd say just pick one and go with it and try out other brands if you're curious.
Fish sauce can be found at most Asian supermarkets. To my Australian readers, you can now find fish sauce at Coles and Woolies in the Asian aisles.
Super simple to make
It literally takes just 5 minutes to whip up this delicious mouthwatering sauce.
First, put the kettle on to boil some water. Whilst the water is boiling, finely chop fresh garlic and bird's eye chilli.
I suggest deseeding the chilli as the seeds are the hottest parts and can get too overpowering. It's all about balance with this recipe!
By now the water should be hot in the kettle. In a small bowl, combine hot water with caster sugar, mix and it should dissolve quickly.
Then, add fish sauce, minced garlic and chilli into the sugar water mixture and fresh lime juice.
A tip to get as much juice out of citrus fruits (lime, lemon or oranges) is by rolling the fruit on a hard surface with your hand. You've got to roll it with a bit of force to effectively break apart the juice pulps inside.
Cut the lime in half and squeeze it into the bowl. I use a small teaspoon to help with extracting as much juice as possible. If you've got a citrus squeezer, even better!
Once the sauce is mixed well, give it a taste and adjust to your liking if necessary. If you find it a bit too strong, dilute it by adding a bit more water. Not enough salt? Add a dash more fish sauce and so on.
Told you it's easy! Just 5 minutes is all it takes!
Note: this recipe makes enough for 4 people. You can also batch make by doubling or tripling the ingredients. Since there is a high amount of salt and acid, this sauce keeps very well in the fridge in a jar.
Here are some dishes you can serve this dipping sauce with:
- Vietnamese Rice Paper Rolls (summer rolls) - light, refreshing and fragrant rolled filled with vermicelli, fresh herbs, vegetables and choice of protein. A perfect summer snack and a fantastic interactive DIY family meal!
- Vietnamese Lemongrass Pork - fragrant, flavoursome grilled or pan-fried pork. Perfect with rice and fresh cucumber and tomatoes or in a salad!
- Spring rolls - perfect for entertaining.
- Bánh xèo - Vietnamese crepe filled with prawns, pork belly, bean sprouts and fresh herbs.
- Bún - vermicelli noodle salad thin rice noodles with chosen protein, bean sprouts, pickled carrot matchsticks and lots of fresh herbs.
Good to know (FAQs)
Nuoc cham translates to 'dipping sauce' in Vietnamese. Nuoc mam translates to 'fish sauce' and is used interchangeably for a dipping sauce like this recipe that uses fish sauce, sugar, water, lime, garlic and chilli.
Lasts for up to 1 month in the fridge, stored in an airtight jar. Make sure to always use a clean spoon or simply pour the desired amount of sauce out to prevent it from contamination and thus going off.
Made this recipe or have a question? Let me know your thoughts by dropping a note in the comments section below! I'd love to hear from you and will get back to you. 🙂
Happy cooking! - Gen
Vietnamese Fish Sauce Dipping Sauce (Nuoc Mam)
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1 fresh lime's juice ~2 tbsp
- 1½ tablespoon caster sugar substitute: brown or palm sugar
- 3 tablespoon hot water
- 1 clove garlic large, minced
- 2 bird's eye chilli deseeded then finely chop
- Put the kettle on and boil some water.
- In a small bowl, combine hot water with sugar. Mix well until sugar has dissolved.
- Add remaining ingredients and mix well.
- Taste and adjust to taste if required. It should taste sour, sweet and salty with a good heat.