Chances are, if you have had Vietnamese food, you’ve had some version of nước chấm.
Nước Chấm (also called nước mắm pha) is a quintessential fish sauce-based dipping sauce served with a variety of traditional Vietnamese dishes. And it’s the balance of salty, sweet and acidity that makes it the perfect condiment.
You’ll see it with anything from cơm (rice plates), bún (noodle dishes), gỏi (salads), bánh (cakes – usually savory), cuốn (rolls) or even just with proteins.
Depending on the dish, nước chấm can vary a bit but it all starts with a similar base: fish sauce, sugar, water and lime juice (or vinegar).
From there you can add things like fresh ginger and have Nước Mắm Gừng. This ginger variation is most often served with poultry or seafood.
When served along rice noodle bowls, you’ll find shredded carrots and daikon in it.
And in some cases, proteins are served in nước chấm as with the classic Bún Chả Hà Nội. With this dish, grilled pork and ground pork patties are served in a bowl of nước chấm that also contain fresh green papaya slices in it.
Since nước chấm is such a staple, I almost always have a big batch of the standard version in my fridge ready to be doctored up if need be. And in most cases, this basic version is perfect as is.
The biggest challenge to this dipping sauce is finding the right balance between the very few ingredients it requires. Trust me, I’ve spent my early years making sauces that were either too sweet or too salty or just bland. Thankfully, I finally was able to get a good ratio down that yields reliable results.
One thing to keep in mind is that depending on the brand of nước mắm (fish sauce) that you use, you will have to adjust to taste. Some brands are less filtered and are more pungent –not a bad thing, just something you have to compensate for.
After you’ve whipped up a big batch, it’ll last in a sealed container in your fridge for about 3 months. It’ll probably be fine a bit longer but you may lose some of the freshness that the lime juice initially gave.
And whether you add ginger, additional herbs or just use the basic version, your palates will thank you for it!
Basic Nước Chấm
1 cup granulated sugar
3 cups boiling water
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 teaspoons minced chilies, more or less based on preference
1⁄3 – ½ cup fresh lime juice
1 cup nước mắm (fish sauce)
Place the sugar into a large bowl and slowly pour in the boiling water. Stir until the sugar has dissolved and allow to cool completely to room temperature. Add in garlic, chilies, 1⁄3 cup lime juice and nước mắm. Taste and add the rest of the lime juice if needed — this will vary depending on the type/brand of fish sauce that you use.
The nước chấm can be served as is or stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.
Fun Fact: I store my stash of nước chấm in old wine bottles that have screw caps on them. So double check next time you’re rummaging around my fridge for a glass of vino. ❤