On a cold winter day several years ago, my husband and I found ourselves at my oldest brother’s house, where my mother was living at the time. Outside, it was below 35 degrees and had been that way for several weeks. The chill snuck in and lingered in the living room as we sat and talked, shivering next to the space heater. The cold eventually dissipated as the smell of cooking wafted in from the kitchen, where my mom and my sister-in-law stood side by side. The smell was so pungent, yet so comforting and warm, that my husband and I ventured toward the source: They were making Vietnamese rice porridge with chicken, or chao ga. Next to my mother was a bowl of chicken ready to be cooked, soaking in her special fish sauce marinade called nuoc cham.
As a condiment, nuoc cham (or nuoc mam) is as common to Vietnamese cuisine as mustard on a hog dog bun. It’s always there, resting quietly on the dining room table or in the refrigerator, and makes a perfect dipping sauce. The key element is a teaspoon or two of fish sauce (or more, if you can handle the pungency), and with just a few other ingredients, your meal is immediately enhanced in unexpected ways.
The idea of using salt to preserve food began years ago when the ancient Romans and Greeks salted their fish and fermented them with herbs such as dill, coriander, and fennel. For Vietnamese people, it’s no different. Usually made with anchovies and salt, fish sauce purportedly arrived in Vietnam hundreds of years ago by way of Phan Thiet, a coastal city in southeast Vietnam that is now famous for its fish sauce.
Today, Phan Thiet, along with Phu Quoc, a small tropical island off the western coast of Vietnam, rank high in fish sauce production. It’s also where Red Boat, one of the most notable brands of fish sauce in the world, is produced.
In general, nuoc mam has a rich and unique umami taste often not found in other sauces. My mom has her own recipe for nuoc mam that leans on the sweeter side, so the result is both sweet and tart, an appetizing combination of sugar, lime, and salt.
The sauce’s utility as both a dipping sauce and a marinade has made it so ubiquitous in Vietnamese food that more than 95% of Vietnamese households use it daily. Like a reliable sidekick, nuoc mam acts as an addition to many Vietnamese delights including egg rolls, vermicelli noodles with grilled pork, banh uot, on top of plain rice, or my favorite, banh xeo.
The sight of my mom cooking soup that winter day was as comforting as the soup itself. She began the chao by making a bowl of nuoc mam, then marinating it into shredded chicken and letting it rest at room temperature while she tended to the broth brewing on the stove. She took out a small frying pan, sprinkled a dash of vegetable oil, and once it was heated on the pan, she added the marinated chicken and let it cook.
Within a couple of minutes, the chicken began to caramelize, imbued with the spicy undertones of chili and the citrusy tartness of the lime. My mom ladled a bowl with the hot porridge, threw the chicken on top, and sprinkled it with a handful of green onions. The result was a rich, caramelized marriage of two different tastes and textures, and we slurped it up quickly, each of us warm and fulfilled.
- ¼ cup fish sauce (see note below)
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- ⅓ cup warm water (to dissolve sugar)
- 2 Tbsp. lime juice (freshly squeezed, about half a lime)
- 2 tsp. rice wine vinegar
- 1 clove garlic, finely diced
- 1 small chili pepper, finely diced (you can also use ¼ Tbsp. chili flakes)
- 1 Tbsp. shredded carrot (optional)
Mix all of the ingredients in a bowl; stir until the sugar is dissolved. If you are using the sauce right away, set it out and enjoy it with egg rolls or add a dash on top of your rice. Otherwise, place it in the fridge, and when you’re ready to dip, take it out and let it sit until it reaches room temperature.
A note about fish sauce brands: My mom likes to use Viet Huong brand, but you are welcome to use any brand that you can find at the Asian supermarket. Unfortunately, this brand is particularly expensive right now. In my local grocery store, a bottle of this sauce runs $8. Therefore, if you’re looking for a more affordable alternative, I suggest the Squid brand. It tastes just as good and it costs around $5 per bottle. A bottle of fish sauce can last you for several months.