Sweet, sour, spicy, yet refreshingly light, this is the best Vietnamese Dipping Sauce (Nuoc Cham) you’ll ever have! It’s so tasty, you’ll want to sip it! It’s my secret flavor bomb, that adds that perfect zing to almost any recipe!
Nuoc Cham (nước chấm) is a classic Vietnamese dipping sauce that is made from fish sauce (nước mắm chấm), water, sugar, lime juice, garlic and chili peppers. A staple of Vietnamese cuisine, Nuoc Cham is typically used as a dipping sauce but is also a key flavor ingredient for a variety of Vietnamese dishes, from crepes and noodles to seafood and beef.
Don’t quite know what it is? If you have had Vietnamese food before, it’s that beautiful, light honey colored sauce sprinkled with minced garlic and chilis that is served as a dipping sauce with spring and summer rolls.
The sauce consists of an addictive range of delicious flavors ranging from just the right amount of sweet and sour, followed by a little salt and ending with pops of spicy chili notes. I like mine because its sweet and garlicky with a burst of lime and the best part of this recipe is that you can easily customize the proportion of each flavor component to suit your own preference.
Why make this sauce?
Ready in under 5 minutes, this sweet-chili-lime-garlic dipping sauce is not only great with Asian cuisine like fried wontons but is a game changer with everyday foods like chicken wings, fish tenders and nachos. Alone or combined with olive oil or drops of sesame oil, it transforms into a finger licking dressing that is delicious, drizzled on cold rice noodles or salad based pizzas.
Adding a little grated ginger and Sambal Olek to the base recipe is one of my favorite variations to add a little pizzazz to weeknight dinners like juicy pan fried salmon with crispy skin. If you love Asian dipping sauces, its a delicious, lighter alternative to peanut sauce.
The primary ingredient in this recipe is fish sauce which, if you have never tried before, warrants a special introduction. The first time I opened a bottle of fish sauce, I was at a bit of a loss about how this would work as an ingredient. Fish sauce straight from the bottle has a very fishy flavor, is extremely salty and you’ve-gotta-be-kidding pungent.
After a little experience though, I found that used correctly, fish sauce adds a serious umami punch that can add an ovation-worthy range of possibilities to my day-to-day menu. Because of its potency, a little fish sauce goes a very long way. Also, recipes like Nuoc cham, which calls for larger amounts of fish sauce, typically include other components like lime juice, garlic and water, which balances out the strong straight-out-of the-bottle flavor.
What is Vietnamese dipping sauce made of?
A pantry staple in the Vietnamese kitchen, Nuoc Cham or Vietnamese Dipping Sauce is made of water, sugar, lime juice and fish sauce. Its basically a limeade or lemonade with an umami punch. Optional flavoring ingredients such as minced garlic and chilis enhance the flavor.
Most of the sauce is water. Because the sweet component is so important its critical to make sure that the sugar dissolves completely. I typically boil (or microwave) a small amount of the water first, then add the sugar and stir to make sure that every grain melts into the liquid. Once the sugar has dissolved I add the rest of the water which should be cooler because the final sauce tastes best at room temperature.
While white sugar offers a sweet, yet neutral canvas to this sauce, other types of sugars work well too. Brown sugar, for example, adds a wonderful caramel-like flavor while a drizzle of honey can add a fruity or floral flavor depending on its nectar source. Palm sugar adds a smoky butterscotch taste. I have successfully made this recipe with commonly available sugar substitutes like Splenda and Truvia.
The juice of fresh limes adds a fresh, citrusy flavor that gives the sauce its lighter than air feel. Fresh lemon juice of course, is an obvious substitute. I typically juice the limes in a manual citrus juicer, because I like having a little bit of the pulp in the sauce. If you don’t have a citrus juicer and want that texture, just scrape off a little bit of the pulp with a spoon or knife, into the sauce. Bottled lemon and lime juice have never worked for me because the taste and fragrance of the brands that I have tried did not have that “fresh” taste.
If the lime juice is too acidic, replace part or or all of it with rice vinegar for a milder sour taste without the bite. Different types of vinegar such as rice vinegar and apple cider vinegar have different intensities and flavors so taste frequently while adding small amounts to determine the amount which produces the most pleasing flavor to you.
Fish sauce is the last of the core ingredients and is primarily made up of anchovies and sea salt. Many brands of fish sauce are sold in bottles in Asian grocery stores and the international section in supermarkets. Since some varieties have added ingredients like water, sugar and other additives, it is important to take a look at the label to make sure it suits any dietary concerns.
My Vietnamese friends love Red Boat fish sauce as it has a high protein content and is made purely with anchovies and sea salt. A fun fact is that it is made on the Phu Quoc a beautiful beach destination island which many Vietnamese say produces the best fish sauce in the country. For those looking for a substitute, soy sauce is a good alternative, especially for vegetarians. Since the level of saltiness and flavor intensity can vary by brand and sauce type, add a little bit at a time and taste to make sure you use just the right amount.
Optional ingredients such as chilis, minced garlic and thinly sliced carrots adds a little bit of extra zing.
While any type of chilis will work in this sauce, I added serrano chilis because it adds a rich, bright smoky flavor to this dish. I love the red ones because they add a lovely color. If you prefer a milder taste, use less chilis or remove the veins and seeds of the chili to dramatically reduce the hot, spicy rush. You can also use milder peppers like jalapeno or poblano. Grinding the chilis with a mortar and pestle intensifies the heat.
A good rule of thumb is to remember that smaller size chilis typically translates to more fiery heat. For example, smaller chili peppers like Thai chilis, which is more commonly used in Vietnamese recipes, tend to be hotter than bigger ones like poblano. I do not use Thai chilis in my recipe, because they are too spicy for me and also not easily available in my local supermarket.
When handling very hot chilis, I usually make sure that I only touch them with a utensil since slicing 1-2 chilis may not warrant using gloves. If you are out of chilis, you can substitute with bottled ground chili paste like Sambal Olek.
The finely minced garlic is the best part of this sauce. For everyday meals I typically use my garlic press because it’s such a time saver! Making large batches for a party of course, is a completely different matter. In this case, using a food processor, if you happen to have one, to mince the garlic makes the job a lot easier. If you aren’t into raw garlic, a great way to reduce the bite is to pre-soak the minced garlic in the fresh lime juice.
Finally, adding a few thin slivers of fresh carrot adds another punch of color and texture. I see this garnish often in Asian restaurants and even though its only decorative – I just love that explosion of orange in the sauce!
Do you need any special equipment to make Nuoc Cham?
This recipe requires the most basic of equipment, a cutting board, knife, bowl and spoon. For large batches, I might use a food processor to quickly mince the garlic but for everyday meals I just use my knife for prep work and a garlic press to save time on mincing.
How do you make Nuoc Cham?
Step 1: Combine the water and sugar in a small bowl. For optimal results, heat about 1/3 of the water and sugar in a pot over medium heat until fully dissolved. Once the sugar has dissolved, add the remaining water to cool the mixture.
Step 2: Add the fresh lime juice – the mixture will taste like a sweet lemonade.
Step 3: Add the fish sauce. At this point, you can add more of less of the different flavor ingredients to suit your preference. For example, if you add too much fish sauce, dilute with a little water, add sugar to make the mixture sweeter or more lime juice as needed.
Step 4: Add the minced garlic cloves and chilis right before serving. Mix well. Garnish with thin slivers of carrot to add color (optional). To intensify the flavor of the garlic and chilis, use a mortar and pestle to grind into a fine paste before adding to the the sauce. Alternatively you can also add a little store bought chili paste like sambal olek.
Recipe variations and Whole30/Paleo/Keto/Vegan tips
At its heart, this easy-to-make sauce is a flavor play of sweet (sugar), sour (lime juice), salty (fish sauce), garlicky and spicy (chili peppers). The taste can be easily changed by varying the proportion of each ingredient.
Adding grated ginger (Nuoc cham gung) for example makes a sauce that is great with duck and grilled seafood. A little olive oil or sesame oil turns Nuoc Cham into a delicious salad dressing. Once I substituted the water-sugar-lime juice base with apple juice and it was surprisingly good! Below are some tips to consider when converting the recipe to Whole30, paleo, keto and vegan diets.
Paleo, Whole30 and Keto: replace the sugar with your favorite diet approved sweetener. For paleo and keto it is important to make sure that the fish sauce brand used does not include added sugar. Artificial sweeteners like Splenda and Truvia works very well for a keto version of this sauce.
Vegan: Replace the fish sauce with soy sauce. Add soy sauce in small increments until the taste it to your liking.
Hot Honey: Replace the the 2 tablespoons of sugar with 4 teaspoons of hot honey.
Keto Nuoc Cham: substitute the 2 tablespoons of sugar with about 3 packets of your favorite sugar substitute.
How do you serve Nuoc Cham?
Nuoc cham is best served at room temperature because colder temperatures tend to mute the complex flavor layers. Vietnamese cooking expert Andrea Nguyen, describes Nuoc Cham as the Vietnamese version of a vinaigrette.
In addition to serving it in small bowls as a dipping sauce for various types of Vietnamese dishes, it is versatile enough to be used in unconventional ways like in lieu of maple syrup for southern fried chicken and waffles! I often make large batches in the summer because its works with a range of main dishes, salads and appetizers. Examples include:
- Chicken and Shrimp Fried Wontons
- Banh Xeo – Crispy, Sizzling Vietnamese Crepe Recipe
- Basted on grilled meat, pork and chicken
- Soaked in vermicelli (thin rice noodles) and vegetables
- As a dipping sauce for savory crepes, spicy fish cakes and vegetables
- With roasted duck and Fried Rice
- As a dressing for mango and roasted peanut salad
- Drizzled over Arugula Pizza or inside a sandwich
- As a seafood or steak marinade
How long can you store Nuoc Cham?
Stored in an airtight jar, Nuoc Cham will last about 2-3 days in the refrigerator. After 2-3 days, the lime juice will begin to lose its brightness and the flavor of the chili and garlic will intensify. When making large batches of Nuoc Cham, refrigerate the liquid separately. Add the chilis, lime juice and garlic right before serving. Using vinegar instead of the lime juice can help extend the life of this sauce to about two weeks.
Freshly made Nuoc cham can be frozen in an airtight container for up to three months. Leave about a half inch on the top of the container as the sauce will expand once it is frozen. Defrost the Nuoc Cham sauce in the refrigerator overnight and use within 2-3 days.
What are some different types of Vietnamese dipping sauce recipes?
- Fermented Shrimp Sauce (Mam Tom) – Made of a mixture of fermented shrimp paste, crushed garlic, chili, sugar, lemon juice and water, this sauce has a very pungent smell and is traditionally served with Chả Cá Lã Vọng (Hanoi fried fish) or as an ingredient in Bun Dau Mam Tom (pork and tofu with leaf shaped noodles).
- Vietnamese peanut sauce (Tuong Cham Goi Cuon) – A wonderfully creamy, sweet yet spicy peanut sauce typically served with spring rolls.
- Anchovy Dipping Sauce (Mam Mem) – a particularly pungent Vietnamese sauce made with anchovies, crushed pineapples, chilis, sugar and lemon juice. Mam Mem is an acquired taste and often served with beef dishes.
Fish sauce is primarily made up of anchovies and sea salt. Many brands of fish sauce are sold in bottles in Asian grocery stores and the international section in supermarkets. Some varieties have added ingredients like water, sugar and other additives, so it is important to take a look at the label to make sure you get the one that you need.
In Vietnamese, Nuoc Cham is a generic term which means “sauce.” It can actually refer to any type of sauce from those containing single ingredients like soy sauce, to a blend of multiple flavorful ingredients, like Vietnamese dipping sauce, which includes fish sauce, lime juice, chilis and sugar.
Nuoc Mam Cham (Nước mắm Chấm) means fish sauce, which is the primary ingredient in Nuoc Cham.
Several different brands of fish sauce are sold in the United States. The most popular fish sauce brands include Red Boat, Thai Kitchen, Three Crabs and Squid. Of the five brands, Red Boat fish sauce is considered by many to be the best fish sauce for Nuoc Cham – not just because it is made from Vietnam but because it is made purely of anchovy and sea salt with no other filler ingredients.
Since the amount of protein in fish sauce is an indication of the quality of the sauce, Red Boat stands out again, having double the grams of protein compared to the others. The quality is also reflected in the price which is much higher than the other brands.
Fish sauce comes in various levels of quality In fact, some people keep two bottles of fish sauce at a time – a lesser quality for cooking and a high quality one for dipping sauce.
In addition to the brands stated above you can also purchase artisanal level fish sauces that have high nitrogen levels which is a measures the umami intensity.
The “N” on the fish sauce label refers to the nitrogen level in the fish sauce. It indicates the nitrogen level which is the amount of protein in the sauce which translates into a higher quality sauce. Fish sauce over 30N is considered better quality. 40N is considered a great quality for dipping sauces.
While the primary ingredients in fish sauce are anchovies and salt, supplementary ingredients can vary across brands. Thus, it is very important not to assume that fish sauce does not contain shellfish. Certain brands like Red Boat 40°N for example, clearly states that the only ingredients are 100% anchovies and sea salt.
The addition of too much fish sauce is easily corrected by diluting the mixture a little more water. Add more sugar if needed.
Many high-end brands suggest refrigerating fish sauce to preserve the flavor. I keep my fish sauce in my spice cabinet which satisfies the need to store it in a cool, dry place. Others like Andrea Nguyen who has as many as 8 bottles open at a time, refrigerates only some of her bottles.
Like any other condiment, fish sauce has a shelf life and can go bad if not stored properly. A review of some fish sauce bottles show that the expiration date is generally about 2-3 years from the manufacturing date. If a bottle of fish sauce releases gas when you open the cap, its
* Soy sauce is one of the top substitutes for fish sauce and can typically be swapped for a 1 to 1 ratio.
Best Vietnamese Dipping Fish Sauce Recipe – (Nuoc Cham/Nuoc Mam Cham)
- garlic press (optional)
- citrus juicer (optional)
- 1/3 cup water divided, half hot, half cold
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 1 1/2 tbsp lime juice freshly squeezed
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1 tsp serrano or thai chili thinly sliced, red, green or mixed
- 1 tbsp carrot thinly sliced into matchsticks
- 1/2 tsp sambal olek optional
- Mix the sugar and hot water (half the total water) in a bowl. Once dissolved add the remaining water.
- Add the lime juice a little bit at a time, tasting as you go until it tastes like limeade.
- Add the fish sauce. Mix and taste. Add more water, sugar or lime juice to suit your preference.
- Add the garlic, serrano chili, carrots and sambal olek (optional), Serve immediately,
- Hot Honey Nuoc Cham – substitute the 2 tablespoons of sugar with 4 teaspoons of hot honey.
- Keto Nuoc Cham – substitute the 2 tablespoons of sugar with about 3 packets of your favorite sugar substitute.
- Recipe yields approximately 8 servings. The nutrition information has been calculated using an online recipe nutrition calculator and is intended for informational purposes only and should be used as a general guideline. If the nutrition information is important to you, you should independently verify it using your preferred tool.