Nuoc Mam: The Vietnamese Sauce of Life

Nuoc Mam, that delectable but oft “foul” smelling sauce that accompanies many dishes in Vietnamese cuisine, particularly rice dishes and vermicelli bowls.

But what is Nuoc Mam? Simply put, it is fermented fish extract. Yup. Rotten fish juice. But how is it possible that something so foul to one’s imagination could be a culinary delight?

Fish sauce or nuoc mam can be homemade or factory produced; most fish sauce that is produced in the world comes from Thailand, only a few brands actually come from Vietnam.

The fish sauce that you can buy at a typical Asian grocery store still requires to be “mixed” in order to produce the “dipping sauce” that you are served at Vietnamese eateries.

This mixing process is fairly easy. Although I have heard horror stories of people attempting to make fish sauce at home with the wrong method and ultimately causing a odorous disaster! My brother once shared the story of going to his friend’s house only to find that his friend’s mother had boiled the pure fish sauce in a sauce pan and resulted in filling their home with a nasty odor that lasted the entire day!

So here’s my family’s method of making nuoc mam/nuoc cham (dipping sauce); the best thing about this recipe is that it is made using “parts” as the measurement guide, and so you can make nuoc mam in any type of quantity whether it you need to make it for 1 person or 10!

Ingredients:

5 parts boiling water
3 parts white sugar
1 part white vinegar
2 parts Pure Fish Sauce (I am using Thai Squid brand)

Making the Fish Sauce:

1. Find some sort of measurement utensil that you will use to make your fish sauce, it can be a tablespoon or it can be a cup… it’s up to you. I’m using a small bowl as my measurement tool.

2. Add 3 parts of white sugar (I guess you could use brown sugar or some other form… but we’ve always used white sugar) to a mixing bowl or a large sauce pan.

3. Add five parts boiling water to your mixing bowl and stir with a whisk or fork until the sugar is fully dissolved into the hot water.

4. Add 1 part white vinegar to this mixture and mix well. If you plan to use the fish sauce in the same day and will consume it in its entirety, I would suggest you use freshly squeezed lemon juice instead of white vinegar – the flavour is much more brighter and sweeter. However, using freshly squeezed lemon juice will only allow the nuoc mam to hold for a day or two at the most and then it will go bad. We use the white vinegar so that it will last much longer (e.g. months… possibly years – although I have yet to see a jar of fish sauce last that long since we consume it within 5-6 months).

5. Finally, add your 2 parts fish sauce to this mix and stir well. You can continue to add a bit of sugar or a bit of fish sauce to the mix until you get the right flavour that matches your liking. I tend to like my fish sauce sweeter rather than more sour.

 

Your end result will be a light brown mixture that seems to be lacking all the particulates that are in the picture of the nuoc mam at the beginning of this post. I usually leave the nuoc mam like this (plain) and store it in a jar in the fridge and when I would like to use it for consumption, I will add Vietnamese or Thai garlic chili sauce to it as well as freshly chopped garlic, this will result in the “typical” nuoc mam that you would recognize at your favourite Vietnamese eatery!

Voila! I hope you enjoyed that recipe. I’m sorry I forgot to take a photo of the end result, I’ll probably have to edit this post with a final picture to show you what it should look like!

Until next time! Eat. Cook. Enjoy!

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