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Vietnamese dipping fish sauce - Nuoc mam

>> Nov 25, 2008

Mai Pham, Special to The Chronicle

Wednesday, August 15, 2001

Unlike in many Western traditions where the best sauces begin with fresh stock and require considerable time to make, Vietnamese sauces are typically uncooked. They're made with a handful of simple ingredients such as garlic, chiles and lime, then mixed with fish sauce - the quintessential seasoning in our cuisine.

Similar to dressings, the sauces are served at room temperature and can be prepared in minutes. But their simplicity is deceptive, because when served with other ingredients or dishes, the results are usually magical.

Take, for example, bun thit nuong, or rice noodles with grilled pork - a dish that I love to eat at the Ben Thanh market in Saigon. The last time I was there, I remember eagerly watching my favorite noodle vendor cook behind the glass case filled with jars of sauces. I could see her small frame dancing in front of the smoking charcoal stove, one moment flipping the pork over the hot grill, the next assembling the noodles.

When she handed me my bowl, the sweet, savory aroma of grilled meat wafted in my face. It was perfectly cooked, its edges slightly charred and curled up. I reached for the large jar of nuoc cham and doused the dish. The complex flavors resonated in my mouth - the slightly fermented taste of the soft, velvety noodles, the smoky meat, the crisp bean sprouts and cucumbers, the aromatic herbs and the crunchiness of roasted peanuts. Although sweet, sour, salty and spicy all at once, the flavors and textures were delicately balanced.

The sauce accented the other ingredients, creating an entirely different layer of flavor.

To me, this dish is an example of Vietnamese cooking at its best. No matter what mood you're in, be it for a salad, noodles or fish, the first step in Vietnamese cooking is to build a meal around a dipping sauce. The second step is to use ingredients to build layers of texture and flavor. Serve hot food with cold food, soft with crunchy, light with rich. Play up the contrasts, then let the contrast itself be a source of flavor.

Once you've rounded up a basic list of Vietnamese staples, have bought yourself an automatic insulated rice cooker (perfectly cooked rice is essential) and have mastered the following key dipping sauces, you're ready to recreate a whole host of mouthwatering Vietnamese dishes with ease.

For most of my meals, I rely on three basic sauce recipes - all made from fish sauce. Nuoc cham, often referred to as Vietnamese Dipping Sauce, is a light-bodied sauce made by diluting with water nuoc mam, or fish sauce (a concentrated, pungent liquid extracted from anchovies fermented in brine), garlic, chiles, lime juice and sugar.

In Vietnam, a premium-graded product is slightly viscous (that means it has a higher protein content), with a clear, light-brown tinge and no colorings or additives. The flavor varies depending on the brand, the kind of anchovies used and where the fish was harvested.

In the U.S., fish sauce is available at Asian markets, specialty stores and some supermarkets. However, it's hard to determine the quality of the products because they are not graded. best bet is to select a higher-priced brand in a glass (not plastic) bottle. The liquid should be a clear light brown, not dark brown.

Wipe the opening clean after each use and store the sauce in a cool place or, better yet, in the refrigerator. Fish sauce will last indefinitely because of its high salt content, but in a typical Vietnamese home, it rarely sits around longer than six months.

Vietnamese Dipping Sauce is versatile enough to be served with rice noodles,

fried rice, stir-fries and salads, such as one made with pomelo or grapefruit and grilled shrimp. We also love this sauce for dipping spring rolls, salad rolls or any small pieces of meat or seafood that have been wrapped in lettuce and herbs.

My second favorite is nuoc mam gung, or Ginger-Lime Sauce. I drizzle it, along with all the pounded ginger and chiles, over grilled or pan-seared salmon and hot steamed rice for an easy Sunday dinner. If you like the peppery flavor of watercress as I do, serve it on the side, using the sauce as a dressing. It's also delicious over grilled beef or chicken.

The third sauce is a puckeringly sour but addicting nuoc mam chanh, or Chile-Lime Sauce, made with equal parts of fish sauce, sugar and lime, studded with lots of chiles.

Chile-Lime Sauce makes a fabulous dipping sauce for boiled peel-your-own shrimp, steamed clams and mussels. It turns rice and steamed vegetables into a quick meal and is a good dressing for salads such as green mango and grilled beef, banana blossom with chicken or cabbage salad with pork.

No matter which recipes become your favorites, dipping sauces play a pivotal role in the overall meal. Once you master them, you'll be able to recreate all the bold and vibrant flavors of the Vietnamese table in your own home.

Mai Pham, chef/owner of Lemon Grass Restaurant in Sacramento, is author of the just-released "Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table" (HarperCollins, 2001). She's also the host of "Vietnam: My Country, My Kitchen," to be broadcast on the Food Network on Monday at 7:30 p.m., with a repeat at 10:30 p.m. Visit her Web site at or e-mail her at

Nuoc cham is a must at every Vietnamese table, no matter what is served. You can use this condiment for dipping meat, seafood and vegetables, and for drizzling on rice. Although it will keep for up to two weeks in the refrigerator, nuoc cham is best when freshly made.

3 Thai bird chiles, or 1 serrano chile

1 garlic clove, sliced

3 tablespoons sugar

2/3 cup warm water

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

5 tablespoons fish sauce

2 tablespoons finely shredded carrots for garnish (optional)

INSTRUCTIONS: Cut the chiles into thin rings. Set aside one third of the chiles for garnish. Place the remaining chiles, the garlic and sugar in a mortar and pound into a coarse, wet paste. (You may also chop by hand.) Transfer to a small bowl and add the water, lime juice and fish sauce. Stir well to dissolve the sugar. Add the reserved chiles and the carrots.

Set aside for 10 minutes before using.

Yields 1 cup.

PER TABLESPOON: 15 calories, 1 g protein, 3 g carbohydrate, 0 fat, 3 mg cholesterol, 425 mg sodium, 0 fiber. .

Intensely gingery and spicy, this sauce goes well with foods that have been simply prepared such as steamed or grilled chicken, meat or seafood. Although this sauce will keep for up to two weeks in the refrigerator, I prefer to make it fresh because the ginger tends to lose its sharp flavor when held overnight. Ingredients

1 teaspoon chopped garlic

3 Thai bird chiles, or 1 serrano chile, chopped

3 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons minced fresh ginger

1/4 cup fish sauce

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

3 tablespoons water

INSTRUCTIONS: Place the garlic, chiles, sugar and ginger in a mortar and pound into a paste. Transfer to a small mixing bowl and add the fish sauce, lime juice and water.

Let sit for 15 minutes before using.

Yields about 1 cup.

PER TABLESPOON: 15 calories, 1 g protein, 3 g carbohydrate, 0 fat, 3 mg cholesterol, 340 mg sodium, 0 fiber. .

This spicy and lime-y dipping sauce is guaranteed to add zip to steamed and grilled foods and even salads. Make sure to use fresh lime and gently scrape the segments and pulp into the sauce. Ingredients

1 to 2 garlic cloves

3 Thai bird chiles, chopped

3 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons fish sauce

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice with some pulp and segments

INSTRUCTIONS: Place the garlic, chiles and sugar in a mortar and pound to a paste. (You can also chop by hand.) Transfer to a small mixing bowl and add the fish sauce and lime juice and pulp. Set aside for 15 minutes for the flavors to develop.

This sauce will keep for up to 2 weeks stored in the refrigerator in a tightly closed jar.

Yields about 1/2 cup.

PER TABLESPOON: 25 calories, 1 g protein, 5 g carbohydrate, 0 fat, 4 mg cholesterol, 510 mg sodium, 0 fiber. .
Anchovy dipping sauce:
This is traditionally served with Beef Fondue with Vinegar (Bo Nhung Giam) that is part of the Vietnamese feast called Bo Bay Mon (Beef in seven ways++seven distinct ways of preparing beef). It's good with other stuff too but can be a bit strong to Western tastes

1 c Minced fresh pineapple
3 tb Mam nem (anchovy sauce)
2 Garlic cloves, crushed
1 Fresh red chili pepper,
-seeded 1 tb Sugar
3 tb Fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 ts Rice vinegar
Traditionally, mam nem is served as a dipping sauce for barbecued or fried fish. In general it goes well with grilled foods. It is an essential sauce fro Beef Fondue with Vinegar. Use only fresh pineapple and remember to shake the bottle of anchovy sauce thoroughly before using. Anchovy cream may be substituted. Over a bowl, squeeze the pineapple between your hands to extract as much juice as possible. Combine the pulp and juice and set aside. Into a bowl, strain the anchovy sauce through a very fine sieve, pressing on th solids with a spoon to extract all of the liquid. Discard the solids. Pound or crush the garlic, chile and sugar to a fine paste in a bowl. Stir in the pineapple mixture, strained anchovy sauce, lemon juice, vinegar an fish sauce. Stir to blend. Yield: 1 1/3 cups


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