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Nước-Mắm and Nước Chấm Dipping Sauces

Mắm Gừng (Ginger Fish Sauce)

Fish sauce by itself is salty, pungent and overpowering. Only a true fiend (like my wife) would eat it in its raw form, although there are those rare Vietnamese dishes where you eat it pure. Otherwise, it is best used to salt a dish or to mix down into the delicious dipping sauces below.

A quick note: Nước Chấm literally translates to “dipping sauce,” but I don’t know a helluva lot of Viets that actually use that term. At a restaurant you would usually ask for Nước Mắm and they know what you are talking about – the mixed stuff. If you are looking for raw, undiluted fish sauce, say to add to your phở or cháo (porridge), then you would actually have to ask for Nước-Mắm Mặn aka “salty fish sauce.”

The very first time I had nước-mắm was at a Vietnamese restaurant and I did not like it at all. It was sweet, vinegary and just not for me. The next time, the husband made it for me from scratch and I LOVED it. It was so different from the restaurant’s version. His fish sauce was complex in flavor – you could taste the garlic, lemon, fermented fish flavor, chili and just a hint of sweetness. Then he introduced me to ginger fish sauce and I was over the moon. Who knew fresh chopped ginger could go so well with fish sauce? Unfortunately for me, we don’t get to eat ginger fish sauce much as I’d like to – usually only with chicken and cabbage salad. But the regular fish sauce, I can eat it every day if the husband allows me to. He keeps telling me that I need to eat in moderation. Something about the sodium not being very healthy for me. I can admit I pretty much drink the stuff down and I do get a little puffy from all the salt. But hey, if the price of good food is looking like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, then so be it. It’s just too delicious to only dip a little bit. Let me put it into perspective: I usually have two or even three dipping bowls worth when everyone else only has a half a bowl. That’s how much I love this stuff! So you can see, Dear Reader, why the husband has to intervene.

If I could, I would put fish sauce on everything. I love it on my rice, with Vietnamese Huế dishes, mixed into eggs whites and with meat like fish, pork and chicken. I’ll dip anything in it: egg rolls, yams, shrimp, rice noodle cake rolls (I almost sound like Bubba from Forrest Gump here!). I’ll even use it as a salad dressing in a pinch. God, I really am a fiend!

Well, enjoy the fish sauce recipes. Let us know how it turned out. And let me know if you too develop a dependency on it. We can start a support group for fish sauce addicts.

– Wifey

Even if you’ve tried it at a Vietnamese restaurant and didn’t care for it, I suggest you at least give the below Regular ́Nước Mắm a try. Usually restaurants make their sauce with vinegar instead of lemon and with a shitload of sugar to accommodate Western taste buds — absurd. Please, I beg you, make a small amount of the recipe below, dip an egg roll in it and I can almost guarantee you’ll be converted. I like my fish sauce on the lemony side, so if you are to tweak anything, you might reduce the lemon proportion.

You’ll notice that all the recipes are in ratio form. I was inspired by Michael Ruhlman’s book Ratio (Droid users, there is also a cool app), which is a perfect way to simplify the sauces below and adapt them to whatever amount you need to make. Yes, I know I am mixing liquid and dry ingredients, but granulated sugar is consistent enough that as long as you use volume measures, you’ll be fine.

For the uninitiated, you just pick whatever volume measure you want and add the ingredients in the second row using the proportions listed in the top row. For instance, if you chose teaspoons using the first recipe below, it would be:

  • 1 tsp chopped garlic
  • 4 tsp fish sauce
  • 5 tsp white sugar
  • 8 tsp lemon juice
  • 12 tsp water

Depending on how spicy you can handle, it’s always best to add at least a little bit of fresh Thai chili for the spice and aroma. Mash sugar, chile and garlic/ginger together in a mortar and pestle, then add the liquid ingredients and mix well. Chopping your garlic before mashing in the mortar is not necessary, but it is crucial for ginger because it’s a very stringy item. By chopping it first, you make sure that you get a little bit of the ginger with each bite when you dip.

We are off to Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii for the next week+ so enjoy these recipes while we’re away. Hope to have new food finds to share when we get back from the islands! Leave us a comment with any suggestions for good eats in Maui.

Regular Nước Mắm: best used as a dip for Vietnamese egg rolls; over rice; with Vietnamese “moon crepe” or with grilled pork skewers or pork chops.

Ratio – 1 : 4 : 5 : 8 : 12

Chopped Garlic : Fish Sauce : White Sugar : Lemon Juice : Water

Light Nước Mắm for rice noodles: For the ubiquitous “bun” rice vermicelli dish, served with any combination of grilled pork, grilled shrimp, beef with peanuts and/or egg rolls. Just ladle this shit over your noodles. Wifey drinks this stuff!

Ratio – 1 : 4 : 4 : 8 : 16

Chopped Garlic : Fish Sauce : White Sugar : Lemon Juice : Water

Strong Nước Mắm for Huế dishes: Huế is the Central region of Vietnam where I am from. One of our specialties is these small potsticker-like dishes that are dipped in the below fish sauce. It’s more intense in flavor: hot, garlicky and salty. Reduce the chili even more if you can’t take overly spicy foods.

Ratio – 1 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 4 : 2

Thai Chili : Chopped Garlic : Fish Sauce : White Sugar : Lemon Juice : Water

Mắm Gừng (Ginger Fish Sauce): Great with the “tougher” shellfishes like geoduck, abalone and conch. Often served as a dipping sauce with chicken phở.  For a simple rice dish, serve as a dip for boiled, cooled, sliced chicken; accompany the chicken with a simple Vietnamese salad of finely sliced cabbage, onion, basil and mint, tossed in a white vinegar dressing (white vinegar with a splash of fish sauce and a couple pinches of sugar). Again, reduce the chili if you don’t want it too spicy.

Ratio – 1 : 4 : 4 : 5 : 4 : 2

Thai Chili : Chopped Ginger : Fish Sauce : White Sugar : Lemon Juice : Water


About Huy-zer

Jack of all trades, master of none. Do not approach unless you're prepared for a blizzard of useless facts and 80's music trivia.


2 thoughts on “Nước-Mắm and Nước Chấm Dipping Sauces

  1. This is a really interesting post – I love the sound of the dipping sauces and the photo is delightful. I shall have to try it – fish sauce is brilliant when mixed 😀

    Posted by frugalfeeding | January 12, 2012, 2:56 am


  1. Pingback: Thiṭ Nướng (Vietnamese Grilled Pork) « You'll Have What We're Having - January 12, 2012

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