Nước mắm is THE quintessential condiment in Vietnamese cuisine. Before we go too far, let me explain the name. In my family, we’ve always called the dipping sauce made with limes, coconut milk, garlic and chilis nước mắm (literal translation: fish sauce). Many Vietnamese refer to this mixture in the same way. However, I recently found out that nước mắm really refers to the the liquid you buy in a bottle made from fermented fish. The proper name of the dipping sauce, once all the ingredients are added, is nước chấm (literal translation: dipping sauce). Confused yet? I was, too, until I did some research. Thanks, Wikipedia and the internet in general.
Some people, especially those that aren’t familiar with South Asian food, can be intimidate (read: scared off) by fish sauce. After all, it’s fermented fish juice. BUT once you’ve seen the magic that it can perform on bland food, you’ll forget its unsavory origins. It’s spicy and sweet and salty and surprisingly refreshing. It was great in our bun thit nuong, a cold dish. But it’s also great on hot dishes as well. And you haven’t had eggrolls if you haven’t dipped them in nuoc mam. There was always a jar or two of the stuff in my parents’ fridge. Ever since I decided that I would start learning how to make Vietnamese food, there’s been one in mine.
I searched the internet for a couple days to see if I can find one that I thought had authentic ingredients. But since I never really paid attention when my family was making it, this was kind of a lost cause. In the end I called one of my aunts and she broke it down for me. Here’s what you need:
Before you start making it, be aware that this does make quite a bit. It makes roughly two of the jars that’s pictured. Add lime, fish sauce, sugar and coconut juice into a medium sauce pan. Coco Rico coconut drink is preferred, but I couldn’t find any at the store across the street from me, so I just got some other kind with pulp and strained it. Bring to a boil and let simmer for a couple minutes. The idea is to really blend all the flavors together. If you’re in a hurry, you can skip this part…just make sure to stir enough so all the sugar is dissolved. If you boil the mixture, let it come to room temperature. Add the garlic and chopped chilis/Sambal. Make sure the garlic is finely minced, though. It might also help to crush them to really release the flavors. I showed my aunt the picture above and she said I didn’t chop them enough. LEARN FROM MY MISTAKE! Once everything is added, let it sit for a few minutes for the garlic and chilis to infuse into the sauce. If you don’t use it all, seal it up and put it in the fridge.
Just a couple teaspoons of this stuff will make your bland meal fun. No, really.