I have a lot of friends who love Vietnamese dipping sauce (nuoc cham). When they ask me for the recipe, I tell them it's a closely guarded family secret. However, I have finally received permission from my parents to disclose the formula. It took a lot of groveling on my part and even a few tears were shed, but I got their blessing.
Okay, I made the last part up, but wouldn't it be more special if it really was a secret? Anyway, every Vietnamese family has a dipping sauce recipe. The ingredients in nuoc cham are generally the same, but the proportions vary based on personal tastes and regions in Vietnam. According to Vietnamese cookbook author, Andrea Nguyen, "as you move south the sauce gets sweeter, hotter, and more garlicky."
This may explain why I don't like the nuoc cham made in San Francisco restaurants, which are generally too sweet for my tastes. My family is from the middle part of the country and I was born in Da Nang. It all makes sense now.
As you gain experience with this dipping sauce, adjust it to suit your preferences. There's no secret formula. It's just a simple sauce with a great blend of salty, sour, sweet and spicy. For some meals, I like adding or substituting ginger for the garlic (nuoc cham gung). The ginger dipping sauce is great with a meal of roasted duck and sticky rice.
I'm going to post the recipe for my mom's crab and shrimp egg roll (cha gio) shortly, which requires nuoc cham. To whet your appetite, I leave you with this picture.
Vietnamese Dipping Sauce (Nuoc Cham) Recipe
SND Note: This recipe is how my family likes our nuoc cham. Adjust the ingredients to your tastes, particularly the lime since the juice varies with each fruit. To make a ginger dipping sauce (nuoc cham gung), add 1 tablespoon of minced ginger.
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup warm water
1/2 cup fish sauce (Viet Huong Three Crabs brand)
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/2 of a lime, juiced
3-4 cloves of garlic , minced
2-3 Thai chili pepper, minced
1) In a small sealable jar, combine water and sugar and stir to dissolve the sugar. Add fish sauce, vinegar and lime juice and mix. Adjust flavors to taste.
2) Add garlic and chili pepper. The sauce can be stored at room temperature, if served the same day. Otherwise, store it in the refrigerator.
Makes about 2.5 cups