A Sauce of Golden Glory: Nuoc Cham

Vietnamese food, for all that I have seldom cooked it in the past, may become my newest culinary obsession.

Why?

Because the flavors are fresh, delicate and delightful.

Like Thai and Chinese foods, Vietnamese foods are an exercise in balance between flavors, colors, textures and aromas.

One of my favorite aspects of Vietnamese cookery is the prevalent use of and love for fresh herbs. The Vietnamese people are serious about their herbs and use them with a generous hand, eating them often as salads in and of themselves. The bright, intense flavors explode on the tongue, in a dazzling array of fragrance and texture. The use of strongly flavored fresh herbs enlivens Vietnamese foods, bringing a sparkle and brilliance to the plate that is hard to resist.

Another favorite aspect of Vietnamese cuisine for me is the use of table sauces and condiments, most of them freshly made.

Nuoc Cham, one of the most ubiquitous of these sauces, while it has endless variations, is essentially a mixture of fresh Thai bird chilies, fresh garlic, sugar, lime juice and fish sauce, cut with a bit of warm water.

As a perfect balance between hot, sour, salty, sweet and savory flavors, the sauce excites all of the taste buds on the tongue at once, leading to a spirited dance of the palate. Variations of the sauce include shredded fresh vegetables such as carrots or diakon radish for texture and added earthy sweetness, fresh herbs such as cilantro for a deep green fragrance, or some shallots, extra chilies or garlic for added bite. Every household has its favored variants, and different recipes are used to enhance different foods.

However it is made, it is imperative to make the sauce the day it is to be used, and it is best if one leaves it out at room temperature for at least twenty to forty minutes before it is to be served so the flavors can mingle and become friendly together.

What is it used for?

As a dipping sauce, condiment, marinade, or salad dressing. It can be puut onto or into just about anything and make it tastier. It goes beautifully in soups, is great as a dipping sauce for spring rolls, it can marinate fresh vegetables as a simple salad, or it can be used to bathe noodles or rice in flavor.

I personally love thinly sliced cucumbers and red onions marinated in it as a sort of salad or relish. Daikon is great treated this way as well.

I have been known to sneak a spoonful to sip neat when no one is looking. I think it tastes just that wonderful. Heck, it even makes plain old ramen taste awesome!

One thing I must note here. When one is using fish sauce uncooked, as a table condiment, it pays to use the best, most brightly flavored sauce one can buy. My favorite brand is Golden Boy, which is Thai; it has a light, smooth flavor that is neither harshly salty nor funky-fishy, but is just all-around full of umami goodness.

Here is my favorite version of this most essential Vietnamese table sauce. Mine is quite garlicky and hot, with a sweet green fragrance from the cilantro and the optional mint and lime zest. Use this recipe as a guideline for creating your own version of the recipe.

Tomorrow, I will write up a dish that just would not be the same without nuoc cham so you can get started using it as soon as possible.

Nuoc Cham

Ingredients:

3-4 fresh red or green Thai bird chilies, very thinly sliced
2 medium sized fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced (about 1 1/2 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon fresh minced mint leaves (optional)
1/4 teaspoon fresh minced lime zest (optional)
3 tablespoons raw, brown or palm sugar
5 tablespoons fish sauce (Golden Boy brand is the best)
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2/3 cup warm water

Method:

In a clean glass jar, combine the solid ingredients with the liquid ingredients.

Screw on lid to jar tightly, and shake vigorously, until the sugar is dissolved.

Allow to sit for twenty to forty minutes at room temperature before use.

You may store leftovers for about three days in the fridge, but the flavor balance is negatively affected; the chili heat becomes stronger and the garlic flavor more prominent. It is best, really to make only as much as you are going to use at a given time and use it up then.

19 Comments

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  1. I have been reading and enjoying for a while now. I will admit to being intimidated by your recipes – much in the way I am intimidated when I shop at our farmer’s market with all the wonderful and strange produce. It is all so foreign to me and yet I am intrigued and the way you write about it I can almost taste it! Do you have any Japanese recipes? I have been experimenting and would love to learn more.

    Comment by K — April 4, 2007 #

  2. Golden Boy is my favorite fish sauce too. I’ve tried a few others, but this is the best. I love it too! My motto when cooking Thai is “when is doubt, add fish sauce.” I cook some Vietnamese, but not a ton as I don’t know it as well as Thai.

    Comment by Diane — April 4, 2007 #

  3. [...] — more — [...]

    Pingback by Vietnamese Cuisine - Vietnamese Cuisine » A Sauce of Golden Glory: Nuoc Cham — April 4, 2007 #

  4. I was fascinated by vietnamese cookery when I visited vietnam for the first time last december. There are some great cooking schools in different cities (the north and south tastes are discernibly different).

    We made this sauce to dip into our spring rolls. Incredible easy to make and had such a fresh taste to it.

    More vietnamese cookery lessons please!

    Comment by Rose — April 5, 2007 #

  5. I love Vietnamese food! I look forward to you featuring more of it.

    I’d especially love to hear anything you can learn about how vegetarian Vietnamese restaurants make AMAZING soup broth. There’s a local vegan Vietnamese place called Tofoo Com Chay whose spicy noodle soup is just unbelievably amazing.

    Comment by Alexis — April 5, 2007 #

  6. K–I have cooked very little in the way of Japanese food. I have made sushi in the past–mostly vegetarian–and I can make a mean miso soup with wakame seaweed, and I used to make sticky rice with azuki beans.

    But, I don’t make very many Japanese foods–I do have a recipe for chicken yakitori somewhere on this site, and I do make edamame, but generally, folks in my household prefer more highly spiced foods than are generally favored in Japanese cuisine.

    I hope that you give some of the simpler recipes here a go–the series on simple Chinese cookery has some really good stuff that is easy to take baby steps into.

    I can do a post suggesting some good Japanese cookbooks, however–and I will do so in the near future for you.

    Thanks for posting, though, and if you have any questions comment again, or you can always email me.

    Will do, Rose!

    Two things, Alexis. I suspect that dried shiitake mushrooms are involved, as well as seaweed. It is possible, however, that they use some amount of fish sauce in it–which is not technically vegetarian, but that may be the magic ingredient.

    Let me do some more research and get back to you on this question.

    Comment by Barbara — April 5, 2007 #

  7. They’re pretty strictly vegetarian/vegan as far as I can tell; they have vegetarian literature (I think it’s Supreme Master Ching Hai stuff) and lots of signs about being kind to animals and the planet and changing your diet. So I’d be a bit surprised if there’s any fish sauce in their stuff…but nothing is impossible.

    Comment by Alexis — April 6, 2007 #

  8. Alexis–while I was at the Asian market today, I remembered that one of the “secret” ingredients to pho stock is often parsnips. They are those white, carrot-like roots. They do make pho stock exceptionally tasty, so I would not be surprised if they, along with mushrooms, did the same for vegetarian broth.

    They are not too hard to find in most grocery stores these days-even here in Ohio!

    Comment by Barbara — April 6, 2007 #

  9. Oh, cool! Thanks! I never would have expected that. I didn’t find any good parsnips at the farmer’s market last week (end of the winter stock I guess) but we certainly have them around here in season.

    It also seems to have a lot of onion flavor, from what I can tell — is that expected?

    Comment by Alexis — April 6, 2007 #

  10. [...] Vietnamese food, for all that I have seldom cooked it in the past, may become my newest culinary obsession. Why? Because the flavors are fresh, delicate and delightful. Like Thai and Chinese foods, Vietnamese foods are an exercise in … — more — [...]

    Pingback by Vietnamese Food - Vietnamese Food » (Swedish) Postcards From SXSW - Marit Bergman searching for … — April 6, 2007 #

  11. I always add parsnips to my chicken stock, and I believe they are my “seceret ingredient” to make the stock exceptionally tasty. Like carrots, they add a nice sweetness.

    Comment by Diane — April 7, 2007 #

  12. [...] Barbara of Tigers & Strawberries, another perennial favorite of mine, has done it once again by posting her recipe for a Vietnamese sauce known as Nuoc Cham. A sizzlingly fresh sauce that Barbara describes as having that wonderful Vietnamese balance of hot, sour, salty, sweet, and savory flavors, I think it may become another key kitchen staple around my apartment. [...]

    Pingback by Habeas Brulee » Blog Archive » Roundup of Food Blog Posts I’ve Enjoyed #8 — April 8, 2007 #

  13. Just out of curiosity… A few days ago my partner and I were eating a “Green Papaya Salad” at a multi-Asian restaurant here in NYC. You know, they have thai AND sushi, AND some vietnamese, AND…

    Anyhow, I thought the dressing tasted similar to what you describe here. Have you had a green papaya salad type dish? And how the heck does one know if one’s papaya is green or not?

    Thanks :) Your blog, as always, rocks.

    N.

    Comment by nex0s — April 8, 2007 #

  14. [...] Another favorite aspect of Vietnamese cuisine for me is the use of table sauces and condiments, most of them freshly made. Nuoc Cham, one of the most ubiquitous of these sauces, while it has endless variations, is essentially a mixture … — more — [...]

    Pingback by Vietnamese Cuisine - Vietnamese Cuisine » Vietnamese Cuisine - Topix.netTopix.netA taste of what's to come — April 9, 2007 #

  15. Nex0s – yes, green papaya salad has fish sauce on it – it typically has all the ingredients listed in nuoc cham.

    Green papaya is the same as regular papaya, just used when unripe. When it ripens it turns yellow and is eaten as a fruit. When unripe (green) it is eaten as a vegetable in Thailand, Vietnam and other places in SE Asia. It is often hard to find truly green papayas here in the US unless you shop at SE Asian markets.

    I like green papaya salad, but find it is best eaten fresh, so prefer to make it at home rather than eat it out. At a good restaurant they will make it fresh, but in some others it might be “pre mixed” and gets a little tired.

    Comment by Diane — April 9, 2007 #

  16. Alexis–yes, onions are always used in vegetable stocks. Onions or scallions for Asian stocks, though. I will do some research and see what I can come up with in the vegetable stock department for you.

    Nex0s–Diane answered you absolutely correctly. Thai Green Papaya salad is dressed with something that contains the exact ingredients of nuac cham. In Vietnam, it probably is dressed with a variant of nuac cham itself.

    And the way you can tell if a papaya is green in the US (aside from buying one from a SE Asian market where it is labeled as such) is that if it is as hard as rock and would cause bodily harm to a person if you were to bean them in the head with it–it is probably green.

    Diane–I agree. It is best made fresh.

    Comment by Barbara — April 9, 2007 #

  17. [...] Vietnamese food, for all that I have seldom cooked it in the past, may become my newest culinary obsession. Why? Because the flavors are fresh, delicate and delightful. Like Thai and Chinese foods, Vietnamese foods are an exercise in … — more — [...]

    Pingback by Vietnamese Food - Vietnamese Food » Addicted to Pho? — April 11, 2007 #

  18. [...] http://www.tigersandstrawberries.com/2007/04/04/a-sauce-of-golden-glory-nuoc-cham/ [...]

    Pingback by http://www.tigersandstrawberries.com/2007/04/04/a-sauce-of-golden-glory-nuoc-cham/ — April 4, 2008 #

  19. [...] you need to make nuac cham–a spicy, fragrant Vietnamese sauce that is like one of the best salad dressings in the world. [...]

    Pingback by Tigers & Strawberries » From Garden to Table: Vietnamese Style Grilled Beef and Pork in a Bowl — June 16, 2011 #

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