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Once you discover how easy it is to make a big batch of nuoc cham, a lively Vietnamese dipping sauce, you’ll probably always have some on hand to throw over noodles, grilled meat, or salads. I serve it as a condiment for both fresh and fried spring rolls, too.
Come to think of it, there isn’t much this sauce wouldn’t improve. Everyday roasted veggies, for example. Pour a spoonful or two (or three, go ahead!) over a platter of peppers and onions, or even some cold sliced cucumbers, and you’ll be giving away this recipe in no time. There’s just something about this sauce.
How do you pronounce Nuoc Cham?
I pronounce it “knock-chaam” (with a long a).
What is Nuoc Cham?
Nuoc Cham is a classic dipping sauce and dressing used in Vietnamese cuisine. At its simplest, it’s a mixture of water, sugar, lime juice, and fish sauce; it’s also 100% addictive. I make a big batch and keep it in the refrigerator to pour over salads, rice noodles, and grilled chicken or shrimp.
Once you taste this sauce, you’ll probably find your own favorite excuses to use it. It brightens everything it touches, giving food an irresistible salty tang. This recipe uses garlic and serrano chili for an added bite and a little heat, but if you have Thai chiles, by all means, use them.
How do you make Nuoc Cham?
Making nuoc cham relies on getting just the right balance of sour, sweet, and salty. After grinding the sugar and garlic together to form a paste, all you have to do is whisk in rice vinegar, fish sauce, and fresh lime juice.
Then you can dilute it with some water to make things less intense, if you choose. Finally, you add some shredded carrot, daikon radish, and a finely chopped chile.
You may want to taste your sauce and adjust the flavor balance a bit. Does it need more punch? Could it stand to be a little sweeter, brighter?
What is fish sauce?
Fish sauce is a funky and powerful condiment used in Vietnamese and Thai cooking. It’s made from fish that are packed in salt and left to ferment for up to two years before the sauce is bottled.
How something can be so salty, sweet, and fishy, I’ll never know, but I definitely have a bottle in my pantry for the right occasion.
Fish sauce is typically used to dress dishes that include unsalted ingredients like lettuce, herbs and rice—ingredients that benefit from an extra flavor lift.
It’s not a sauce that you want to drop and break open on the floor, so store it safely and soon enough, you’ll fall in love with its unforgettable umami punch.
What do you look for when buying fish sauce?
Any well stocked grocery or Asian market will have fish sauce, but what brand do you look for? Make sure it’s a clear, amber color when you hold it up to the light.
Anything that looks murky, is dark brown, or has sediment is likely not so good. I use Three Crabs brand or Red Boat.
Can you make Nuoc Cham without sugar?
Because it’s so important to get the balance of flavors just right for this sauce, you definitely need some sort of sweetness. Some cooks even add orange marmalade instead of sugar. If you have it, you can use the non-caloric sweetener of your choice.
Can you make nuoc cham in advance?
Yes, it can be prepared early in the day and left at room temperature until serving. It keeps in the refrigerator for several weeks.
What can be substituted for serrano chilis?
This sauce loves a little heat, but if you have diners who are sensitive, serve the chiles on the side.
Habaneros could be used for heat, but not too much unless you like it really hot. A bit of minced red bell pepper could be used to balance the heat and add color.
If you can’t find fresh serranos, look for red Thai chiles at the Asian market; check their freezer section. Finally, you could always rehydrate a dried chili pepper (found in many Mexican food shops).
Can you make nuoc cham without fish sauce?
You can substitute lemony soy sauce, such as Ponzu brand, or vegetarian fish sauce, which is made with seaweed, in place of the fishy stuff.
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- 3 cloves garlic minced
- 1 ½ tablespoons granulated sugar
- 3 tablespoon fish sauce (See notes)
- 2 tablespoon rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 1 serrano chile seeded and thinly sliced on the diagonal
- 1 tablespoon carrot grated
- 1 tablespoon daikon grated
- Using a mortar and pestle, grind together the garlic and sugar until the paste forms.
- Alternatively, combine the ingredients in a mini food processor and process to a paste.
- Transfer to a bowl and whisk in the fish sauce, rice vinegar, lime juice, and ¼ cup (2 fl oz/60 ml) water.
- Pour through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean bowl and add the chile, carrot, and daikon. Makes about 2/3 cup (5 fl oz/160 ml)
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Meggan Hill is a classically-trained chef and professional writer. Her meticulously-tested recipes and detailed tutorials bring confidence and success to home cooks everywhere. Meggan has been featured on NPR, HuffPost, FoxNews, LA Times, and more.
My family calls this ‘secret sauce’ because of how good it is and how mindblowingly easy it is to make. We love making Vietnamese spring rolls at home and this sauce is also good on rice noodle salads…..
Hi there! So happy to hear your family loves this sauce! Thank you – Meggan