Nước mắm (fish sauce) or more officially Nước mắm pha (mixed fish sauce or fish sauce ‘vinegarette’), although never really referred to as such, is THE cornerstone dipping sauce to Vietnamese cuisine. This simple yet complex sauce is the marker by which I judge Vietnamese restaurants and cooks (yes, I am also silently judging you if you serve this to me). You can tell right away who is watering their sauce down, using low quality ingredients or doesn’t care enough to adjust the flavorings in each batch.
Recognizing early on the importance of serving and consuming good nước mắm in terms of marital success, favor with in-laws, winning friends, influencing people and ensuring consumption of good food, I needed to crack the code for my gold standard sauce: Mama Truong (the MIL). I started with the wishful/naive ‘asking for the recipe’, for which none exists. She was/is more than happy to make up a never-ending supply for our kitchen. However, this does not ensure sustainability of the recipe, so relying on my basic math and observational science skills, I set out to capture the recipe in a reproducible format.
The Situation: During preliminary observations, I noted that Mama Truong measured quantities using a variety of implements and vessels: coffee mugs, all sizes spoons, pinches, eyeballing and adjusting to taste. To be successful (in this and some much else in life), the variation needed to be reduced.
The Method: I set up a controlled kitchen setting allowing my MIL to use only a few tools to prepare the sauce, each of which I had measured previously for volume. I observed and documented each ingredients addition and subsequent adjustment, totaling at the end of sauce production.
The Supplies: glass liquid measuring cup, standard spoon, citrus juicer with measured bowl.
The Result: The recipe. Judged by many to be the best fish sauce for dipping, known by me and my family to be true.
Mix together and then taste and adjust for salty/sweet using lime juice or sugar or level of spicy. We add a chili sauce later as well for individualization.
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 3/4 cup water
- generous 1/4 cup concentrated fish sauce
- 1/4 cup lemon or lime (preferred) juice with pulp; fresh squeezed best but bottle is a-okay or this product
- 1/2 tablespoon chili sauce and/or thin sliced thai birds eye peppers (the tiny hot ones in red and green) *TIP: slice pepper wearing gloves
- 1/2 tablespoon minced garlic
Why so judgey? Because this sauce shows up in many of my favorite dishes, bo la lat, chả giò (egg rolls), gỏi cuốn (spring rolls), banh xèo (similar to a crepe), bánh hỏi, banh cuốn and all the grilled meats just to barely name a few.
Curious why there is an ingredient called fish sauce that isn’t used the same as the fish sauce? Thank you to Houston Press for clearing it up.
What about Thai fish sauce? The kitchn investigates in this article.
Which concentrated fish sauce is the ‘best’? We are a Three Crabs family but after reading this in-depth investigation (bordering on blasphemy?) on Our Daily Brine, I will consider trying out their top brands but know that it will take some serious flavor to sway me. Here is another buying guide complete with the key Vietnamese words to look for on a label.
How about a vegetarian or vegan version? Here is a recipe.
Is there shellfish in fish sauce? No, not usually despite brands featuring shellfish in their names, (again) Three Crabs or Shrimp and Crab. Check the label though. It is made from basically barrels of liquified fermented fish. I saw and smelled with my own eyes in Vietnam.
Other versions and musing on fish sauce
- whiteonricecouple.com’s recipes
- Orangeade – Fame, funk and fish sauce
- Favorite article on fish sauce and culture! www.cheftu.com
Some of my other Vietnamese recipes