Nuoc Cham – Vietnamese Fish Sauce/ Dipping Sauce

Vietnamese food

I secretly critique Vietnamese restaurant base on their nuoc cham.  Seriously 9/10 times it’s right on the money!  If they have good nuoc cham, most likely their food will be decent as well.  The reasoning behind this theory stems from my mom.  She said “If you want to be good at Vietnamese cooking, practice making nuoc cham.”  Making nuoc cham is combining and balancing different flavors; salty, sour, spicy, and sweet.  If you can learn to balance flavors then you can easily cook Vietnamese, it’s really that simple.  If you know what the final product should taste like, think about what flavors are missing.  Get in the habit of tasting your food instead of relying on measurements.

I’ve been meaning to write an entry on nuoc cham for so long now, I can literally write a novel on it!  There are so many different ways to prepare nuoc cham. Nuoc cham for deep fried fish is not the same nuoc cham for spring rolls.  Nuoc cham for banh beo is not the same nuoc cham for banh bot loc.  Today I will share the recipe for a multi-purpose nuoc cham that you can use for many Vietnamese dishes.  Hopefully once you get the hang of making nuoc cham, you will no longer need to rely on measurements and just start making it by taste alone.  Here are a few helpful tips before you make your batch of nuoc cham.
1.  Fish Sauce:  
This is what makes the sauce so the brand does matter or I should say the concentration.  There are so many brands of fish sauce, I usually stick with the Vietnamese brand or the Squid brand (Thai) because it’s what I know.   So you have the Squid Brand, Red Boat, 3 Crabs, and etc.  They all vary in prices due to how well it’s filter and the purity of the product.  Squid is probably consider the worst quality and the cheapest, yet it’s my only choice when I make nuoc cham.  Before you call me crazy, let me explain my reasoning (stems from mom)!  Squid brand is the most concentrated because it hasn’t been filtered very much, therefore it is very salty and pungent.  It’s the best to make nuoc cham because it has the most depth of flavor.  The more expensive brand are filtered and diluted for taste, therefore if you use it to make nuoc cham the flavors will get lost once you add water.  Basically you are diluting your fish sauce even more once you prepare your nuoc cham.  Don’t get me wrong the expensive brand (filtered fish sauce) is good fish sauce but it’s good on its own.  Once you start adding water, sugar, and lime it’s going to dilute it and it will lose its flavor.  I prefer Squid brand because it’s the most concentrated and salty.  I use the Squid brand when I cook as well because you don’t need to use a lot of it compare to the expensive brand. 
2. Vinegar Vs Lime
Both are fine to use but I prefer lime because it just gives the nuoc cham some freshness.  
3.  Boiling the water
It’s important to use boiling water so you can dissolve all the sugar so you can actually taste the sweetness.  Note that not all nuoc cham required water such as the ones for deep fried fish.  
4.  Garlic
Some nuoc cham are more syrupy (such as the one use for banh hoi and heo quay) which is made by smashing garlic together with the sugar.  If the food doesn’t call for a syrupy nuoc cham you can just minced it up finely.
5.  Boiling Water > Sugar > Minced Garlic > Chilli > Lime > Fish Sauce
Remember this step if you want to start making nuoc from taste, trust me it’s better than measuring!  Add boiling water to the sugar and stir so it dissolved.  Let the sugar water cool.  Add the minced garlic and fresh chili.  Add about 1/2 a lime first.  Then slowly start adding the fish sauce.  As you are adding more fish sauce, taste to see what it is missing.  More lime? More fish sauce?  More chili? Add whatever you feel is needed!
6.  For some reason when you store your prepared fish sauce in the fridge it tend to get diluted, so I usually make it a little saltier when I make them to store.  I know pickled carrots (do chua) taste really good in nuoc cham but avoid storing them together otherwise your nuoc cham will get diluted.
7.  Below is the recipe for a basic nuoc cham for spring rolls, cha gio, banh xeo, bun thit nuong, and the likes.  Usually nuoc cham for banh beo, banh uot, and banh cuon calls for a sweeter fish sauce so just use a little more sugar then the recipe below.  Good luck!
Ingredients: This will make one big container.
3 cups of boiling water
3/4-1 cup of sugar (for a sweeter nuoc cham use 1 cup)
1 lime (1/4 cup)
~ 3/4-1 cup of fish sauce (I use Squid brand, if you are using a more filtered fish sauce you will need to use more)
fresh chili (your liking)
1.  Boil your water and then add it to the sugar.  Stir the sugar to dissolved and let the sugar water cool down.
2.  Add the minced garlic and fresh chili.  If you add garlic to hot sugar water, it will turn green. 
3.  Add 1 lime. 
4.  Measure out one cup of fish sauce, you may or may not use the whole 1 cup.  Slowly add your fish sauce and taste as you add additional fish sauce.  Note:  If you are using a filtered fish sauce you may need to use more than 1 cup. 

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