Vietnamese Fish Sauce Recipe (Nước Chấm)

As a staple in Vietnamese cuisine, the Vietnamese dipping sauce, nuoc cham, is a stepping stone when it comes to creating an authentic Vietnamese meal. Locally, you will find it simply known as “dipping sauce.” Nuoc cham is paired with appetizers like spring rolls and main dishes.

Nuoc cham with sides of red chilli peppers, citrus and garlic

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Growing up Vietnamese, nuoc cham was almost always part of our meals, especially those that called for it, but also for dipping boiled leafy vegetables. For vegetable dipping, the sugarless kind is preferred.

The good thing is that you can pre-prepare the sauce and keep it in the fridge, ready to use. However, in my household, we always stirred up a fresh batch for special dishes.

Opting for the right fish sauce may alter your dish’s taste. There are wide varieties available. Most sauces inform you about where they originate, the type of fish, etc., making it easy to choose the one that best suits your palate or dish.

What to Serve With Nuoc Cham

Sauces play an important role in traditional Vietnamese cooking, and there are many different kinds. Nuoc cham, though, is a dipping sauce that you can pair with many recipes. 

Vietnamese Dishes to Serve With Nuoc Cham:  

  • Grilled pork with rice noodles and veggies (bun thit nuong)
  • Savory Vietnamese crepes (Banh xeo)
  • Banh hoi (a Vietnamese dish made of rice vermicelli twisted into bundles)
  • Banh cuon (steamed stuffed rice rolls )
  • Grilled pork chops (suon nuong)
  • Vietnamese Fried Fish (Ca Chien)
  • Grilled meat
  • Rice paper rolls

Salad and Rolls with Nuoc Cham Sauce:

Spring rolls with nuoc cham
  • Green mango salad with shrimp (Gỏi Xoài)
  • Fried spring rolls (Cha Gio)
  • Egg rolls

Even though some recipes go better with slight variations of this classic Vietnamese dipping sauce, this base recipe works well with most Vietnamese foods. It can be served on the side or as a salad dressing, and you can always make minor tweaks to best suit your recipe or taste buds. 

Ingredients Used for the Sauce

The resulting dipping sauce is half water, thus making it an essential ingredient. You can regulate the amount of resulting sauce by the amount of water.

Mixing water, sugar, and freshly squeezed lime juice or lemon, you start making your dipping sauce. Combining these three ingredients gives us a lemonade that we can customize to our liking.

If it is not as sour as we would like, we add more citrus; if we want it less sweet, we add more water. Always keep in mind that the acidity of the fruit affects the dipping sauce’s overall taste, and fresh lime juice may be more acidic than lemon juice.

Sauce with nuoc cham

The next primary ingredient is fish sauce. The amount and the brand you opt for will also ultimately define the taste of your nuoc cham. The sauce is to be added gradually to the other ingredients so that you can regulate the flavor and saltiness of your final result. You will find the best fish sauce for you by trying the different sauces available.

Finally, add sugar. An excellent tip to keep in mind when adding sugar is that it does not dissolve in cold water easily. To avoid this issue, dissolve it in warm or hot water and then add cold water. 

Chopped chilies or garlic make a great addition to the sauce and give any food an extra zing.

Variations of Nuoc Cham Recipes

What I love most about nuoc cham is that it can be anything from a simple dipping sauce to a customized sauce. A basic nuoc cham combines water, lime juice, sugar, and fish sauce. I enjoy more of a bite to my dipping sauce, so I add some chilly or finely chopped garlic. 

A mixed fish sauce, also known as Nuoc mam, uses fish sauce. A vegetarian version of this sauce replaces fish with seasoning sauce.

Other variations may include adding other juices for a sugar-free variation; instead of sugar, you can add honey or agave. Another option may be to substitute white with palm sugar. Palm sugar is sweet but milder than its common counterpart.

Another twist is to use vinegar instead of lemon or lime sauce because it adds more acidity or because it is an easier option for larger batches. It is optional to replace the lime juice altogether; adding a bit of rice vinegar will add a tanginess to your sauce that lime juice may lack.

Regardless of the variations, with or without white vinegar, more or less sweetness, either garlic or chili, it is the same sauce. Hence, it is an easy recipe with a delicious result that will add an explosion of flavor to even the most simple dish.

Vegan Vietnamese Dipping Sauce

Those that follow a vegan diet or are allergic to fish can still enjoy a Vietnamese dipping sauce with their spring rolls, rice paper rolls, vermicelli bowls, or other dishes. You can make a vegan fish sauce with shiitake mushrooms, liquid amino (produced from the fermentation of coconut, soybeans, or mushrooms), and soy sauce. The mushrooms provide the umami flavor distinctive to fish sauce.

For a vegan take on a nuoc cham recipe, you can follow the same basic simple recipe but replace the fish sauce with soya sauce. The resulting nuoc cham recipe may be a bit darker in color but still offers the same umami taste and flavor that will compliment your meal, from a simple spring roll to the main course.

As with a Nuoc mam, a vegan dipping sauce, nuoc cham chay can also have Thai chili or garlic, according to your preference.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What is Vietnamese fish sauce?

Authentic Vietnamese fish sauce is made up of anchovies, mackerel, scabbard fish, sea salt, and water, usually fermented for a certain period.

Generally, fish or shellfish are mixed with salt and then sealed in a closed airtight container for up to two years.

Generally speaking, fish sauce is used as a seasoning that you can add during or after cooking. Thanks to its savory umami flavor, it is not only used in Asian Recipes but globally. In Vietnamese recipes, it is also a base for nuoc cham or nuoc mam dipping sauces.

Vietnamese food usually calls for sauces with a mildew smell. So, before looking for a Vietnamese fish sauce brand, you can consider making the sauce at home.

When you order nuoc cham at a Vietnamese restaurant, they will serve you a Vietnamese dipping sauce, much like the one in this great recipe. They may add white vinegar, rice vinegar, minced garlic, or chopped chilies.

  1. How is nuoc cham sauce different from fish sauce?

Nuoc mam is prepared the same way. However, it is fermented for a smaller period of time; also, the fish extract and the base are used.

A Vietnamese dipping sauce is generally served in a small bowl on the side of your dish. For example, a restaurant may serve a platter of spring rolls with a small bowl of delicious dipping sauce on the side. Whereas if you see a small bottle on your table at Vietnamese restaurants, it is usually a portion of Vietnamese fish sauce.

The Vietnamese dipping sauce, or nuoc cham, is a delicious companion for many Vietnamese dishes, like Cha Gio, spring rolls or summer rolls, Banh xeo, Banh cuon, bun thit nuong, and many more. Adding garlic or Thai chilis gives it extra flavor.

  1. Can I make fish sauce from scratch?

Creating a fish sauce from scratch is not something someone can easily achieve as it takes months to complete. The essential ingredients to a fish sauce are anchovies, sea salt, and water.

Despite the simplicity of the ingredients, creating a fish sauce from scratch is not as easy as the ingredient list or recipe card may suggest. Fermenting is a months-long process which is not an easy feat. There are a variety of fish sauces on the market; you just have to find the best brand for you. The best way is a taste test!

When creating a homemade nuoc cham, the best option is to use store-bought fish sauce and then mix it with water, sugar, lemon juice, or vinegar. There are many brands available in markets and supermarkets, and you can try a variety of brands until you find the one that best suits your taste buds. The difference is mainly in saltiness and intensity. 

  1. How to store nuoc cham?

Make the best of the fresh ingredients, particularly the freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice. It would be best to eat the dipping sauce right after making it. If you have leftovers or prefer making a larger batch to always have some on hand, your nuoc cham Vietnamese sauce will last about a week in the refrigerator.

This makes it ideal as it makes mealtime a breeze. However, due to the freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice, its taste will slowly start to dim. The less it stays in the fridge, the stronger the flavor. 

However, storing the sauce in a sterilized airtight jar or container will last in the fridge for as long as 2 to 3 weeks or up to a month. For more extended storage, it is essential to remember to use clean utensils when serving every time.

  1. Are hoisin and fish sauces the same?

Hoisin sauce is a condiment made of fermented soybeans intensified with spices. A hoisin sauce combines umami with sweet, tangy, and spicy flavors. A significant difference between fish and hoisin sauce is that it does not contain any animal products, making it a vegetarian and vegan option. 

Vietnamese Dipping Fish Sauce Recipe (Nước Chấm/Nước Mắm Chấm)

Here is a simple nước chấm recipe. You can customize it however you like.
5 from 7 votes
Prep Time 5 mins
Total Time 5 mins
Course Seasoning, Side Dish
Cuisine Vietnamese
Servings 4
Calories 43 kcal

Equipment

  • Garlic press
  • Measuring spoons

Ingredients
  

  • 6 tbsp. water
  • 2 tbsp. sugar dissolve in warm water
  • 1.5 tbsp. freshly squeezed lime juice or lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp. fish sauce

Optional Ingredients

  • 1 clove garlic minced
  • 1 bird's eye / Thai chili finely sliced

Instructions
 

  • Mix water with sugar in a bowl. For a better result, warm 1/3 of the water before mixing to make dissolving the sugar easier before adding the remaining water.
  • Add lime or lemon juice slowly, tasting as you go along. The goal is a lemonade/limeade taste.
  • Add fish sauce in small amounts until you achieve the desired taste.
  • Top with garlic and chilies, then serve.

Nutrition

Calories: 43kcalCarbohydrates: 11g
Keyword vietnamese dipping fish sauce, vietnamese fish sauce
Tried this recipe?Let us know how it was!

Wrap Up

Brighten up your meal with the nuoc cham, the traditional Vietnamese fish sauce that imparts a sweet and tangy flavor. The sauce is quick and easy to prepare, and you can serve it with a variety of dishes. Give our recipe a try, and let us know what you think.

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Cassie brings decades of experience to the Kitchen Community. She is a noted chef and avid gardener. Her new book "Healthy Eating Through the Garden" will be released shortly. When not writing or speaking about food and gardens Cassie can be found puttering around farmer's markets and greenhouses looking for the next great idea.
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