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