Vietnamese Dipping Sauce (Nước chấm)

Nước chấm is a must at every Vietnamese table, no matter what is served. You may use this condiment for dipping meat, seafood and vegetables, and for drizzling on rice. When serving it with steamed meats (such as steamed chicken), I often reduce the water by half so the sauce is more concentrated.

You can often determine a family’s roots just by looking at and tasting their nước chấm. If it’s clear and dotted with chopped chillies, the cook is probably from the central or northern regions, where a simple and straightforward version is preferred. But if it’s diluted with water and lime juice and sweetened with sugar, one can surmise that the cook is from the verdant south.

Although it will keep up to two weeks in the refrigerator, nước chấm is best when freshly made. I prefer the intense flavour of the tiny bird’s eye chillies, but any hot chillies will do.

Make 1 cup

2 long red chillies

1 clove garlic, sliced

3 tbsp sugar

2/3 cup warm water

1 ½ tbsp fresh lime juice

4-5 tbsp fish sauce

2 tbsp finely shredded carrots for garnish

  1. Cut the chillies into thin rings. Remove one-third of the chillies and set aside for garnish.
  2. Place the remaining chillies, garlic and sugar in a mortar and pound into a coarse, wet paste. (if you don’t have a mortar, just chop with a knife).
  3. Transfer to a small bowl and add the water, lime juice and fish sauce. Stir well to dissolve.
  4. Add the reserved chillies and carrots.
  5. Set aside for 30 minutes before serving.

Note: Nước chấm is very amenable to variations and adaptations. In Việt Nam, cooks like to use various vegetables to flavour the sauce, such as thinly sliced daikon and carrots, ginger, scallion oil or peanuts and even slices of kohlrabi and the core of the white cabbage. Each imparts a distinctive savoriness.