Nuoc Mam, aka fish sauce, is a staple of Vietnamese cooking. It has a very fishy (surprise!) and salty taste. It can be used both as an element in the cooking process and as a condiment (this condiment dipping sauce is not the same though!)
In its pure form, as it would be used for the cooking process, fish sauce looks like this:
While this fishy elixer as found in the bottle can be used to make various dishes, including soups and meats like thit kho, the dipping sauce is quite different and needs to be made.
Nuoc Mam Cham – Dipping Fish Sauce Recipe:
This is really easy to make at home – just be careful not to spill or if you do, clean up immediately. Fish sauce can have a potent smell. Some people might think it’s sexy, but overwhelmingly, most don’t (call me if you’re in the former category). The nuoc mam used for dipping is just equal parts water, sugar, acid (lime juice or vinegar, I prefer lime), and the bottled fish sauce. That’s it for the basic version, just 4 ingredients.
Directions: Dissolve the sugar into boiling water, the same as you would to make simple syrup. Then when it cools, add the lime juice and fish sauce. Stir well. Make sure you taste it! If it’s too strong, add some water to dilute it; if it’s not sweet enough, make more simple syrup, etc. You can then jar the sauce and save it in the fridge for months.
Optional: As additional steps, when I made enough to fit a 16 oz jar, I like to add 2 cloves of finely minced garlic and add a tablespoon of chili garlic paste. Fresh thai chilis, finely chopped up, will also add quite the spicy kick to your dipping sauce.
Vietnamese people dip everything in this fish sauce, and I love it. You can drizzle a bit over rice & eggs, use it as a dipping sauce with fried fish or pork chops, etc. The possibilities are endless. If you want to play a cruel practical joke, serve it to an unsuspecting friend and tell them it’s soup. If you’re especially cruel, tell them it’s culturally insensitive not to have a second serving. Repeat until they realize that they really should no sooner be slurping ketchup or gravy by the bowlful.