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Vietnamese sauces are an essential part of Vietnamese cuisine. While rice is certainly the main basis for Vietnamese cuisine, a Vietnamese dipping sauce is often used alongside.
In Vietnam, sauces are present on every table and street food stalls to accompany the main dishes.
Typically, a characteristic small porcelain bowl contains the sought out Vietnamese dipping sauce to go along with the food.
While nuoc mam, the famous Vietnamese fish sauce, is the most popular, there are many other sauces that bring the Vietnamese flavors to life.
In this article, we introduce you to five authentic Vietnamese sauces, from fish sauce to Vietnamese peanut sauce.
Discovering Vietnamese Sauces in Vietnam
While eating our way through Vietnam, the Vietnamese sauces were an integral part of the many meals we savored.
From the most pungent to the most perfumy, each dipping sauce brought new levels of flavor to our palates.
What we noticed is fish sauce and variations of dipping sauces with seafood elements at the core of the Vietnamese sauces.
Another important element is soy sauce which is often combined with fish sauce or other ingredients.
Sugar is also added to some variations of fish sauce to balance out the saltiness and overpowering taste of seafood.
Citrus such as fresh lemon or fresh lime juice are either combined with the sauces or brought whole to the tables.
Vietnamese spices and condiments such as fresh chilli, ginger, lemongrass, garlic, shallots and vinegar are commonly used.
Thick sauces are not common in Vietnamese cuisine but rather you find dipping sauces to complement the main ingredients.
And after taking a few cooking classes in Vietnam, we learned a number of easy to make dipping sauces.
Here are five Vietnamese sauces that can be made in 5 minutes or less.
READ MORE: Vietnamese Cooking Class in Saigon
1- Nuoc Mam – Vietnamese Fish Sauce
Nuoc mam, the iconic Vietnamese fish sauce is used in many Vietnamese dishes. Similar to salt used in western tables, nuoc mam is found on Vietnamese tables to season food.
This fish sauce is made from the juice of fermented fish typically anchovies, and then mixed with salt. This Vietnamese fish sauce is manufactured all along the coast of Vietnam.
The best Nuoc Mam fish sauce is said to come from Phu Quoc Island, a paradise island west of Vietnam.
The manufacturing of nuoc mam is quite fascinating. Layers of fish and salt are marinated for several months in large wooden barrels.
The fermented liquid is then extracted and gives a dark orange color juice used as a dipping sauce.
The first extract is the most expensive. Lower quality fish sauces are made by adding water to the extracted juice. The resulting liquid is clearer and lighter and generally used for cooking.
One of the best fish sauces is Red Boat fish sauce. Red boat makes organic fish sauce from only two ingredients: anchovies and salt. The anchovies are caught on small boats and salted on the spot.
Gluten free, this sauce has no MSG or preservatives, and no flavoring or water is added. The salted fish are then fermented for a minimum of 12 months before extraction of the juice.
Red boat also makes higher grade Vietnamese fish sauce known as their Reserve bottles for a more intense taste.
While the smell of nuoc mam might put off a few, don’t let it turn you off.
We recommend using a higher grade Vietnamese fish sauce as nuoc mam is used as a base for various other Vietnamese sauces.
And we find Vietnamese fish sauce to be the perfect complement to salt simple rice dishes.
Watch This Video About Vietnamese Fish Sauce at Red Boat
2- Nuoc Mam Cham or Nuoc Cham – Vietnamese Dipping Sauce
Nuoc Mam Cham also called nuoc cham is the most popular Vietnamese dipping sauce made using nuoc mam.
Nuoc cham or nước chấm is commonly used to refer to “dipping sauce” in Vietnam.
Nuoc cham is a must if you want to savor authentic Vietnamese cooking. This Vietnamese dipping sauce is typically used for salads.
We first learned to make nuoc cham in a cooking class in Saigon and we provide the recipe below.
Nuoc cham is made of equal parts of fish sauce, fresh lemon juice, and sugar. Added to the sauce is chopped chili and garlic.
Sometimes the lemon juice can be substituted with another citrus like fresh lime juice, apple or rice vinegar or even water.
One variation of nuoc cham we made in our Saigon cooking class was used to make broken rice.
Nuoc Cham Recipe
For a simple nuoc cham recipe, simply follow these instructions.
For the Ingredients
- 2 tablespoons of sugar
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons of fish sauce.
For the condiments
- 1 teaspoon of garlic minced
- 1/2 teaspoon of chopped red chili or more depending on your spice tolerance
- Mix in a small bowl the sugar, lemon juice and fish sauce until the sugar is completely dissolved. Make sure the ingredients are at room temperature so that the sugar dissolves better.
- Add the garlic and chili on top to taste
- Stir before serving
This nuoc cham recipe makes 1 cup of dipping sauce.
This simple recipe is the perfect dipping sauce to accompany spring rolls or salads.
3- Nuoc Mam Sa Ot – Vietnamese Lemongrass Dipping Sauce
Another popular and fragrant sauce in Vietnam is Nuoc Mam Sa Ot, a lemongrass dipping sauce. This aromatic dipping sauce will please the seafood lover.
Like other Vietnam dipping sauces, this dipping sauce uses nuoc mam or fish sauce as a base. This sauce is made with fresh lemongrass, sugar, lime juice, chili and garlic.
This Vietnamese dipping sauce is sweet, sour, and spicy with mixed chili and lemongrass. And, it has a natural citrus finish making it a perfect seafood sauce.
We had it countless times while eating seafood in central Vietnam. It pairs well with razor clams or sea snails. You can also use it for vegetarian dishes or a light meat like chicken.
We found a natural spicy lemongrass sauce made by Viet Khieu who specializes in authentic Vietnamese sauces.
Their products are made with high quality natural ingredients sourced locally for maximum freshness. No MSG, preservative, artificial coloring or flavoring is added to their sauces.
And they use high quality fish sauce as a base for their sauces. Their sauces are available on Amazon and make for a great alternative to a homemade one.
READ MORE: Danang Food and Its Seafood Treasures
4- Tuong Ot – Vietnamese Chili Sauce or Hot Sauce
In Vietnam, you will often find fresh chillies brought on the tables on a plate or in a bowl. Red, green and yellow chillies are the most popular with yellow being the hottest.
Although chillies are not used for cooking in Vietnamese cuisine, they are often served, thinly cut in sauces.
That way, it is easy to adjust the spice levels to your liking.
In addition to chillies, the chili sauce or Tuong Ot is ever present on Vietnamese tables. It is used as a table condiment as well as for seasoning in soups or salads.
Tuong ot was readily available while eating our Banh Mi Op La in Saigon, a tantalizing deconstructed Vietnamese sandwich.
In Vietnam, chilli sauces are typically made with fresh ground chillies, garlic, salt, sugar and vinegar.
In the U.S., this chilli sauce is commonly referred to as sriracha or hot sauce. While made with similar ingredients, the famous sriracha tastes and looks different than the chili sauce found on Vietnamese tables.
Sriracha has a sweeter profile and thicker texture than a typical Vietnamese Chillies sauce. Sriracha was born in the U.S. and created by a Chinese-Vietnamese immigrant after the Vietnam war.
The famous red sauce became famous first in California before being popularized on every American-Asian restaurant table.
While in Vietnam, you typically see the Vietnamese chili sauce Cholimex on the tables. It is spicier than sriracha with a brighter red color and fluid texture.
Despite not being as popular as sriracha, you can find it on Amazon if you want to give this Vietnamese chili sauce a try.
AUTHENTIC FOOD QUEST TIP: For more on Vietnamese sauces and Vietnamese cuisine, check the cookbook Vietnamese Food Every Day. This cookbook, written by the famous Vietnamese chef, Andrea Nguyen, makes Vietnamese cuisine approachable for any home cook.
5- Nuoc Leo – Vietnamese Peanut Sauce
Peanuts offer a wonderful variation to textures in Vietnamese cuisine. Roasted peanuts in particular, give a nice crunchy texture to smooth noodles dishes or salads.
One of the most unusual combinations we found were freshly roasted peanuts paired with grilled oysters. It provided a surprising contrast between the chewy oyster texture and the crackling peanuts.
In addition to peanuts, peanut sauces are a nice and smooth complement to Vietnamese cuisine.
We savored our favorite peanut sauce with Banh Xeo, the famous sizzling crepe in Danang, central Vietnam.
With the banh xeo, we used rice paper and Vietnamese fresh herbs to make our own spring rolls. Then we would dip our fresh made spring rolls into the amazing smooth peanut sauce.
Besides spring rolls, this Vietnamese peanut sauce goes deliciously with shrimps and seafood as well.
This dipping sauce is traditionally made of peanuts, garlic, chillies, broth (pork, chicken or shrimp), sugar and salt.
The broth used depends on the type of spring rolls served. With banh xeo, the sauce contains pork liver broth while for shrimp spring rolls, the broth used is a shrimp broth.
For a vegetarian sauce, you can omit the broth and simply add tomato and vinegar. To enjoy a ready made vegetarian Vietnamese peanut sauce, check out Star Anise Foods.
This Vietnamese producer makes a tasty peanut sauce using Vietnamese ingredients from scratch. Their peanut sauce is non GMO, made without MSG, preservatives, or coloring.
AUTHENTIC FOOD QUEST RECIPE: Simple Authentic Vietnamese Peanut Sauce Recipe
Take a trip to Vietnam right from your kitchen with any of these Vietnamese sauces. An integral part of Vietnamese cooking, dipping sauces help bring the flavors to life.
These sauces are simple to make and are based on one primary ingredient fish sauce.
Get yourself a high quality bottle of fish sauce and have fun experimenting with the tastes of Vietnam at home.
What is your favorite Vietnamese dipping sauce? Please let us know in the comments below.
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Claire is co-founder of Authentic Food Quest and a lover of simple and exquisite cuisine. Since 2015, with her partner, Rosemary, she has been traveling the world as a digital nomad, creating content about local food experiences.
Her advice from visiting 45 countries and more than 240 food cities has been featured in Lonely Planet, Business Insider, Honest Cooking, Food Insider, and Huffington Post. She has also co-authored three books, including one in collaboration with Costa Brava Tourism.
An ex-mechanical engineer, Claire is responsible for SEO, keeping the website running, and the fun food & travel videos on YouTube.
When Claire is not eating, she can be found running or cycling. Find out more about Authentic Food Quest