The Best Vietnamese Dipping Sauce (Nuoc Mam Cham)

A glass bowl of Vietnamese dipping sauce with finely chopped garlic, lime pulp and red chillies.

Vietnamese dipping sauce or nuoc mam cham is the lifeblood of many traditional Vietnamese dishes. This sauce is predominantly made with sugar, fish sauce and lime juice which gives it the classic south east Asian flavour combination of sweet, salty and sour.

Making Vietnamese Dipping Sauce (Nuoc Mam Cham)

Today, I will be showing you guys how my family makes this Vietnamese dipping sauce. If I had to describe our family’s recipe in comparison to others it would be a sweeter sauce with a bit of tang. This is because my parents come from the southern part of Vietnam, where they generally like increase the sugar and lime ratio. Hope you guys find this post interesting and helpful!

Any Brand of Fish Sauce Can Work!

Now I have seen crazy arguments online about which brand is best for cooking, dipping and everything else in between. My stance is that whatever brand you use, you can make it work!

Because lets be honest, people buy different brands of fish sauce for a variety of reasons. Most of the time it is the one that their parents used as they were growing up. Sometimes it’s the taste or the sale price. The one thing I am certain of is that it is definitely not worth arguing over.

The Fish Sauce Brands I Use

In my experience, the more expensive bottles of fish sauce have a deeper and richer flavour with a longer length of taste. For these reasons I like to use them for recipes where the fish sauce is the star ingredient. This is because you will be able to taste the fish sauce in its entirety, getting the most value for your money.

When you start mixing a lot of stuff in, the delicate notes and flavours of the fish sauce become lost. This is why I generally use cheaper fish sauce for cooking.

So can you make a good Vietnamese dipping sauce from cheap fish sauce? YES! My mum used cheap fish all her life and I love her nuoc mam cham.

In my opinion, the secret to making a great tasting sauce comes down to being able to tinker it to your preferences. Because if it tastes good to you, what else matters?

The fish sauces I generally use if you are interested:

  • Squid ($3 – $5 AUD) – This cheap fish sauce is great for cooking and staying on a budget. My mum uses it for everything and I love MOST of her food!
  • 3 Crabs and Megachef Gold ($6 – $10 AUD) – These mid range fish sauces are fantastic for cooking and dipping. Basically your all purpose fish sauce.
  • Red Boat ($15 + AUD) – This is easily the most expensive fish sauce I have ever used. The flavour is superior to any other brand when tasted on its own. Great for anything that requires fish sauce but may be a bit too expensive for everyday use.

Adjusting Your Vietnamese Dipping Sauce to Your Taste

I’m giving you my general recipe today, which is sometimes on the money and other times needs to be adjusted. This will always be the case because the strength and taste of each ingredient is always going to be slightly different, for example depending on freshness, ripeness and variety. So, while it’s helpful to have a good basic recipe, the more important thing is to learn how to adjust it to suit your preferences.

This is my thought process when I try to balance out my nuoc mam:

  1. If there is not enough saltiness, body or it’s otherwise bland, then add more fish sauce.
  2. If there is too much of a strong fish sauce aftertaste, then you will need to add more sugar, lime and water to round it out.
  3. If you are not getting enough tang, then add more lime juice.
  4. If you need to mellow out the tang then add more sugar.
  5. If you want a little more sourness without using lime or lemon then add a little white vinegar.
  6. If the sauce tastes too strong, then add a little water too dilute the flavours.
  7. If it tastes pretty close but not quite there, give the sauce time to develop. You will notice that once the garlic has been infused the flavour of your sauce will dramatically improve getting you over the last hurdle.

All these steps should be done in SMALL increments (usually 1/2 tsp) then taste tested straight after. Never do too much at one time.

What to Add to Your Vietnamese Dipping Sauce

Here are a few things I add to my sauce to elevate the flavour:

  • Whole flattened garlic – If you don’t like having raw pieces of garlic in your food then leave it whole. Simply flatten the clove of garlic with a knife and drop it in your sauce.
  • Finely chopped garlic – This is the most popular way of adding garlic to your sauce. It is also the fastest way for the garlic to infuse with the sauce.
  • Chopped chillies – For anyone who loves spice, adding chopped birds eye or Thai chillies is a must.
  • Lime pulp – This will add pops of sourness which will make your sauce much more interesting. To effectively get lime pulp use a juicer like the one below.
  • Pickled carrots – You will see this done at restaurants to add texture to the sauce and make it look better. I don’t bother because I am lazy.
Lemon & Lime Juicer with Pulp

Using Soft Drink (Soda)

There are people out there who swear by using soft drinks (soda) as a substitute for the water and sugar in their nuoc mam cham. The ones I have seen are:

  • Coconut Soda (Coco Rico)
  • Sprite
  • 7Up
  • Lemonade

I’ve tried a few recipes online and have experimented with Sprite, 7Up, and lemonade. None of the recipes I tried turned out well, they all required a lot of tinkering. Coconut soda seemed to be the most popular substitute but I could not for the life of me find it in Canberra.

I’m not sold on soft drink being any better, especially when it’s replacing water and sugar which are usually more readily available. Potentially I’d change my mind if I tried coconut soda but for now I’m happy to stick with the more traditional method.

Vietnamese Dipping Sauce with Whole Flattened Garlic

Give the Sauce Time to Develop

Most of the Vietnamese dipping sauce recipes you see online will tell you to serve it up straight away. Honestly, in my experience, the sauce begins to taste better the day after you make it. Why? Because you give the garlic time to infuse and for the flavours to develop. Of course you can always serve it up just after making it but you will notice the fish sauce will have a slightly sharp taste to it. Give it a day and the other ingredients will slowly round it out leaving you with a beautiful tasting Vietnamese dipping sauce.

Vietnamese Dipping Sauce with Chopped Garlic, Lime Pulp and Red Chillies

What to Serve Nuoc Mam with?

Hope you guys enjoyed this recipe post! If you guys do make this recipe, please tag us at #scruffandsteph on Instagram and Facebook.

Happy cooking!

Scruff and Steph

A glass bowl of golden Vietnamese dipping sauce with chopped garlic, lime pulp and red chillies.

A glass bowl of Vietnamese dipping sauce with chopped garlic, lime pulp and red chillies.

Vietnamese Dipping Sauce (Nuoc Mam Cham)

Scruff
0 from 0 votes
Prep Time 5 mins
Cook Time 2 mins
Course Sauce
Cuisine Vietnamese
Servings 4
Calories 66 kcal

Ingredients
 
 

  • 3 tbsp water
  • 5 tbsp white sugar
  • tbsp fish sauce
  • 2 tbsp lime juice (approx 1 – 1½ limes)
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

Optional Extras

  • 1 chilli, chopped
  • 2 tsp lime pulp

Instructions
 

  • In a small saucepan on medium heat, add the water and sugar. Stir until completely dissolved.
  • Take off the heat and add the fish sauce and lime juice.
  • Add the garlic, chillies and lime pulp (if using) and taste check. Adjust to your taste (Note 1).
  • Store in the fridge. (Discard after 1 week)

Notes

  1. Balancing out your Vietnamese dipping sauce:
  • If there is not enough saltiness, body or it’s otherwise bland, then add more fish sauce.
  • If there is too much of a strong fish sauce aftertaste, then you will need to add more sugar, lime and water to round it out.
  • If you are not getting enough tang, then add more lime juice.
  • If you need to mellow out the tang then add more sugar.
  • If you want a little more sourness without using lime or lemon then add a little white vinegar.
  • If the sauce tastes too strong, then add a little water too dilute the flavours.
  • If it tastes pretty close but not quite there, give the sauce time to develop. You will notice that once the garlic has been infused the flavour of your sauce will dramatically improve getting you over the last hurdle.

Nutrition

Serving: 1gCalories: 66kcalCarbohydrates: 17gProtein: 1gFat: 1gSaturated Fat: 1gSodium: 884mgPotassium: 32mgSugar: 16gVitamin C: 5mgCalcium: 8mgIron: 1mg
Keyword Nuoc Mam Cham, Vietnamese Dipping Sauce
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