Getting the hang of making this Vietnamese dipping sauce (nước chấm) is an important step to making your cuisine just right. Since it’s just about everywhere in Vietnamese cooking, it’s simply referred to as “dipping sauce”.
This is a dipping sauce I grew up with as a kid, with mom and grandma making this pretty often, for the dishes that specifically call for it, or sugarless versions of it just to dip boiled leafy veggies with (rau muống, or water spinach anyone?).
They’d keep a stash of premixed sauce ready in the fridge for regular meals throughout the week, but when a special dish is being made, they’d make a fresh batch for the meal or for the day, and it definitely tastes better.
I used the Three Crabs brand fish sauce. Depending on the kind you use, you will need to adjust the amount used due to sodium levels and flavor which can vary from brand to brand. This nước chấm or fish sauce recipe is all about making it to fit your taste.
Commonly Eaten With…
Of course there other types of sauces Vietnamese people use for different foods, but this is the one primarily made with fish sauce.
You’ll usually find a bowl of this sauce next to to foods like chả giò (egg rolls), spring rolls or summer rolls, bánh xèo, bánh hỏi, bánh cuốn, grilled meats such as in one of my favorites, bún thịt nướng (grilled pork with rice noodle and veggies), sườn nướng (grilled pork chops) and fried fish just to scratch the surface.
For different dishes there are slight variations on nước chấm, but we will use this as a base recipe that works great for most things. You can adjust it to your own taste if needed depending on what it’s going with.
For example, local Vietnamese restaurants that sell roasted pork belly, will give you containers of this dipping sauce to go in Styrofoam cups that are SUPER sweet, at least to my taste.
It verges on the realm of being syrup. But folks must love it for it to be the businesses’ mainstay. This is to say that you should also toy around with this recipe to land on ratios you like.
Water – Keep in mind that about half the volume of this sauce is water. So if you’re trying to conserve ingredients, or just not make so much that wouldn’t get used, know that the volume of water you start with, will be doubled in the final sauce.
Citrus – Start by mixing the water with sugar and lime or lemon. This is basically lemonade. If it’s too sweet, add some water. If it’s not sour enough add some more citrus. The flavor and acidity of lemon or limes can vary from fruit to fruit, so use your taste buds.
Following this recipe exactly each time can produce different results since limes or lemons can vary in liquid, pulp, acidity, etc.
But don’t even think about using bottled juice. That stuff tastes slightly muted, and missing that amazing fresh citrus oil scent that doesn’t stick around too long.
Fish sauce – Slowly add the fish sauce in increments until you gradually reach what the recipe calls for, all the while mixing the sauce and tasting it along the way.
After you get used to making this, you can start to tell by the color of the sauce when you are getting close.
Sugar – If you’re trying to dissolve sugar in cold water and it’s too cold it takes a lot longer to fully dissolve, and you can’t adjust ingredients as you go as accurately. Either use a small amount of hot or warm water enough to dissolve the sugar, then fill in the rest with cold or filtered tap water.
Or if you want to get fancy, make a simple syrup by heating equal parts sugar and water in a pot over medium heat until fully dissolved. If you use 1 cup sugar, 1 cup water, you’ll end up with about 1.5 cups of simple syrup. You can save the rest for making cocktails!
Optional additions – Add chopped chilies or finely chopped garlic to the sauce if you like. Chiles are a must for me, and garlic is nice too. Finely chopping garlic is a very time consuming task if you’re doing it manually.
If I’m doing it in bulk, I’ll throw them into a mini food processor, but if it’s just a few I love my garlic press as it’s a huge time saver, and easier to wash than the food processor.
If you live in a household in which each person is going to be picky about their nước chấm, having a mellow base dipping sauce is ideal for that. They can adjust in their own bowls if they want extra fish sauce, lime, sugar, chilies or garlic.
You can keep in an airtight jar in the fridge as you work through it, but I prefer to make it fresh for each meal.
Sometimes you’ll see people put their own twists on this recipe. It’s all about making it your own. I’ve seen some recipes that swap out sugar for some other juices.
In restaurants this is made in big batches. They’ll typically use vinegar for bite instead of lemons since it’s easier and cheaper.
Also, restaurants will not always want to bother finely chopping garlic for your dipping sauce. This is one you can easily add yourself at home.
If you’re looking to try this sauce out I recommend trying my recipe for Vietnamese grilled pork and rice noodle bowls. Let me know what you think about the sauce in a comment below, and thanks for reading!
Vietnamese Dipping Fish Sauce Recipe (Nước Chấm/Nước Mắm Chấm)
- 6 tbsp. water
- 2 tbsp. sugar
- 1.5 to 2 tbsp. fresh lime or lemon juice
- 2 tbsp. fish sauce
- Finely chopped garlic or use a garlic press
- Bird's eye / Thai chiles
- Combine water and sugar in a bowl. Use warm water for easier dissolving.
- Add lime or lemon juice in increments until you like how it tastes. A good guide is it should taste like lemonade/limeade.
- Add fish sauce in small increments until you like how it tastes. It should be a little strong since it goes on unseasoned food.
- Top with garlic and chilies and serve.