This ubiquitous, must-have sauce unifies the different flavors in many a Vietnamese dish and makes the entire composition come together and “pop.” Nuoc cham can effortlessly pull together a dish, making it a godsend for anyone looking to get breakfast/lunch/dinner on the table ASAP. I have a small airtight container of this stuff in my fridge at all times.
I generally serve this alongside cha gio (Vietnamese fried rolls) and drizzled over a haphazardly put together bun bowl – cooked rice vermicelli, raw, shredded lettuce, raw, julienned cucumbers, slices of pan-seared tofu or any cooked chicken/pork/beef/shrimp/fish, plus a sprinkling of fresh mint and Thai/Asian basil leaves.
Nuoc cham is also a wonderful accompaniment to non-Viet-style dishes as well. I’ve drizzled it on corn tortillas filled with grilled fish, Viet-style pickles, julienned cucumbers, and a few springs of cilantro, and the result was tasty. Nation borders are but lines on a map; in the mouth and stomach, they don’t exist.
Countless variations of this sauce abound; tinker with this recipe till you get the exact sauce you want.
2 large dried shrimp plus just enough water in which to soak shrimp (optional)
1 serrano chile or equivalent (optional)
2 large, whole garlic cloves, peeled
scant 3 T turbinado sugar
1/2 c hot water
1 1/2 T fresh lime juice
5 T gluten-free, Vietnamese style fish sauce
Ingredient Sources – What I Use
dried shrimp – Wing Hop Fung (in-house brand).
turbinado sugar – Florida Crystals, Sugar in the Raw, C&H Raw, Washed Sugar
Vietnamese style fish sauce – Tra Chang. (If you can’t find Viet-style fish sauce, make do with Thai-style Squid brand fish sauce, but reduce amount slightly, as its flavor is bolder.)
Soak dried shrimp in a small amount of water for 30 minutes. Remove shrimp and set aside. Reserve water. Thinly slice chile.
Add dried shrimp and chile to mortar and pound with pestle till well mashed. Add garlic (kept whole or sliced) and sugar and pound into a coarse, wet paste. Add a little bit of the hot water to mortar and mix. Transfer paste to a medium bowl, scraping out any bits stuck to the bottom.
Add the shrimp water, the remaining hot water, lime juice, and fish sauce. Mix till sugar is dissolved. Refrigerate at least 20 minutes before serving. (Letting it sit longer allows the flavors to develop more fully.)
Be sure to move pestle up and down (as opposed to stirring) when pounding ingredients in the mortar. I love how the coarse texture of the turbinado sugar helps to break down the dried shrimp, chile, and garlic.
I tend to keep my Viet-style dipping sauce very basic (garnished w/paper-thin shallot slices, no chile), but others may prefer to make it more nuanced. Think about the visual, the textural, and taste; think interplay. Since the sauce is salty/sour/sweet, how about adding something slightly bitter or with an edge: finely julienned jicama and carrots, fine shreds of Easter egg radishes, shreds of raw onion? If contrast isn’t your thing, how about adding a complementary component instead: thin garlic slices, green onion, a high note of fresh ginger or galangal? I wouldn’t recommend adding all of these things at once (though you’re certainly welcome to if that floats your boat); aim for a dominant accompanying note and possibly a secondary note (if using).
When shopping for dried shrimp, I generally get the most expensive ones I can afford. Do not skimp when it comes to dried shrimp. If it looks pathetic, it’s pathetic. Look for a nice orange color and relatively plump (plump for something dried), whole shrimp. Be aware that less reputable sources may use food coloring to imitate the orange color of higher quality dried shrimp. Buy from a reputable dealer. My family used to buy a year’s supply of dried shrimp from the Chinese-American Store in New Orleans before it closed. These days, I buy from Wing Hop Fung, a family-owned business with a reputation for high quality dried foodstuffs. Wing Hop Fung has two retail locations (Los Angeles’s Chinatown as well as the corner of Atlantic/Garvey in Monterey Park in California’s San Gabriel Valley).
In a pinch, you can substitute freshly squeezed kumquat juice for fresh lime juice. (Kumquats grow readily in the San Gabriel Valley.)
The dried shrimp can be omitted if you’re dealing with a shrimp allergy. The sauce will be respectable, though the taste will be less rounded, less robust.
A bit of heat, courtesy of the chile, is nice, but entirely optional. We don’t usually add it since our son isn’t a fan.