Elevate your spring rolls with the most magical Vietnamese condiment of all. This Nuoc Cham Recipe has perfect levels of sour, sweet, salty, savory and spicy!
I think you’ll agree with me that a condiment or dipping sauce can make or break a dish. It can elevate the flavors of the dish as a whole – or sink the entire ship.
Well, it turns out you can make a delicious Vietnamese nuoc cham that will be the star of your dinner in no time flat! Seriously, five minutes in the kitchen is all it takes.
Today’s post is all about the most magical of Vietnamese condiments. How to make it, what to eat with it and even some culinary pitfalls to avoid.
If you’ve ever wondered about nuoc cham, this one is for you!
What is Nuoc Cham?
Nuoc cham is the absolutely delicious Vietnamese dipping sauce that tends to accompany fried spring rolls (Chả giò), pan fried crepes (Bánh xèo) and rice noodle dishes (Bún).
This ubiquitous condiment is a mixture of fish sauce (nước mắm), garlic, palm sugar, lime juice, a splash of water and (sometimes) bird’s eye chilis.
In this home chef’s opinion, the most important element to a good nuoc cham is finding the proper balance of sour, sweet, salty, savory and spicy.
However from an ingredients perspective, finding and using a good fish sauce – or nuoc mam – is the key to full on flavor!
So what’s the best fish sauce to use in this recipe?
I’m a big fan of Red Boat (a Vietnamese fish sauce). I tend to use it when making dipping sauces, or when the fish sauce will be out front and super noticeable. Biggest drawback though is price. It’s pretty expensive compared to other brands.
They all differ slightly in saltiness and assertiveness. So, when it comes to finding your preferred brand, there may be a bit of trial and error involved.
Interesting note: Ben loves fish sauce so much that he lists the salty, briny, whiskey colored liquid as the number one reason he could never go fully vegan.
Yep, it’s that good!
Wait, isn’t it all fish sauce?
What’s the difference between nuoc mam and nuoc cham?
This bit confused me at one point too.
Nuoc mam is technically unadulterated fish sauce. Nuoc cham is the dipping sauce we’re making here today (that happens to use nuoc mam as a central ingredient).
Now, let’s get on to the important business… cooking and eating!
How to make nuoc cham
Dissolve palm sugar in lukewarm water. Then whisk in lime, fish sauce, minced garlic and Thai chiles. I like to let my nuoc cham sit at room temperature for a few minutes so all of the flavors marry well. But that’s an optional step. You can dig in right away if you’d like.
It doesn’t get much more simple than that!
How does restaurant style nuoc cham differ from this one?
Most of the same ingredients tend to be in use when you get your spring roll sauce or dipping sauce for your Vietnamese bun delivered to the table when dining out.
However, I’ve found – at many Vietnamese restaurants in the States, their nuoc cham recipes can tend to be on the sweeter side. More so than the well balanced mixes I’ve had in Vietnam. That heavy handedness with the sugar can result in a nuoc cham that loses some of it’s natural nuance.
That said, there’s a place in our neighborhood in Brooklyn that has a nuoc cham sauce so finely tuned, I feel like I’m sitting on a small plastic stool in Hue inhaling my noodles every time we drop in for a bite.
I’d like to think that my own mixture is closer to a well balanced, authentic nuoc cham – with the fish sauce and chili a bit more forward in the mix.
You’ll just have to try it and decide for yourself!
How to pronounce nuoc cham
The Vietnamese language is full of rising, falling and flat tones that can render the same word with different meanings depending on the delivery. Getting it right can seem like an impenetrable fortress to someone just getting started.
For me, I just had to get used to the fact that I’m saying stuff the wrong way when I travel and when I eat out.
The phonetic spelling is: nɨ́ək tɕə̌m.
But that doesn’t clear much up, right?!
To say nuoc cham with something approaching accuracy, say nuoc as ‘nook’ (like the Barnes & Noble e-reader). And say cham as ‘chum’ (like an old friend from your days at school).
That’s how it was explained to me – and it’s worked at restaurants sufficiently well to this point!
It’s all about the taste
No matter how you say it, though – the most important thing about food is that it tastes delicious and makes you want more.
I hope you love this nuoc cham recipe as much as I do – and that it elevates your spring rolls to pro-status!
What about you? What’s your favorite condiment or dipping sauce? I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below!
Other simple, delicious Vietnamese recipes:
Did you like this Nuoc Cham Recipe? Are there changes you made that you would like to share? Share your tips and recommendations in the comments section below!