While growing up, the pinnacle of my "international" diet were dishes like General Tso's chicken and Greek diner gyros. It took me a while to break from that mold, but nuoc cham—a Vietnamese dipping sauce—holds a special place in my life as it represents a baby step out of a previous sheltered food-view that my suburban upbringing created.
Upon moving to New York, one of my first friends in my new home was Vietnamese and I quickly found myself being brought to his favorite, Mother-approved, joint in Chinatown. Sporting a limited palate at the time, the menu caused more apprehensive than excitement, but with that initial taste of a fried spring roll dipped nuoc cham, my journey as serious eater started to take shape.
That sweet, sour, and salty sauce had an irresistible mixture of flavors that were instantly attractive. The combination of that and the crackling crust of the spring roll let me know, in no uncertain terms, that I had a love for food deeper than I had previously known.
At its simplest, Nuoc Cham is a mixture of water, sugar, lime juice, and fish sauce, creating the base that's a staple of Vietnamese flavor. I personally like some extra additions of garlic and chili for an added bite and a little heat, but neither of those lessen the defining characteristics of this excellent sauce that can brighten seafood, add a salty tang to beef or pork, or soak into a bowl or vermicelli for a delicious snack.
- 1 cup hot water
- 1/2 cup white sugar
- 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1/3 cup Vietnamese fish sauce
- 2 medium cloves garlic, minced
- 1 small bird’s eye chili, minced optional
In a small bowl, whisk together water and sugar until sugar dissolves. Add in lime juice, fish sauce, garlic, and chili (if using) and stir to combine. Use immediately or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.