We might have all had the taste of Vietnamese fish sauce at some point, be it ladled over noodle salad known as bún bò xào, stirred into soup, or slathered on Vietnamese grilled pork and noodles (bún thịt nướng) on your Vietnam culinary tours. But how many of us actually know where it comes from? This quick guide will help you unearth a few secrets behind fish sauce or nước mắm – the mother sauce of classical Vietnamese cuisine.

What Is Fish Sauce Made of?


Fish sauce appears in all Vietnamese meals

Good fish sauces are the water or juice, in the flesh of fish that is extracted in the process of prolonged salting and fermentation for from 1 year to 18 months. Anchovies (cá cơm) are typically used, however, some fish sauces are also made from small fish that would otherwise have little value for consumption.

The basic ingredients of a good fish sauce – small fish and/or fish blood, and innards are packed into large barrels, jars, or crocks with water and layered with salt. Then, these barrels are set out under the hot sunlight for at least 12 months. A whiff from the bottle of fish sauce reveals its strong aroma and alludes to its very distinct, incredibly potent taste and you might notice a small difference when using one for the other. In case you are not yet familiar with nước mắm, it is that salty smelly rich translucent reddish-golden brown liquid made from fish that is the single, most important flavoring ingredient in Vietnam’s cuisine.


How is fish sauce made?

Used like plain salt and pepper in Western cuisine and soy sauce in Chinese and Japanese cuisines, good-quality fish sauce adds a unique character to Vietnamese dishes and imparts a distinct aroma and flavor. It is used liberally in nearly all Vietnamese dishes since Vietnamese food would not be quite the same without it.

It is indispensable in all the Vietnamese kitchens. Ever tried fried spring rolls and noodle salad known as bún bò xào? The small bowl of sauce accompanied by your dish is fish sauce. And going a culinary tour in Vietnam as you quickly learn, Vietnamese cuisine is all about the fish sauce. By itself, fish sauce is very salty, which is why it is usually cooked with other ingredients and used as a finishing sauce.

This kind of sauce packs tons of flavors and enhances whatever it is served with. In the culinary arts, fish sauce is essentially delicately flavored, well-balanced fish sauce, which is the starting point for making various secondary sauces or “small sauces.”

How to make nước chấm or nước mắm chấm?


Nuoc cham recipe

Fish sauce is usually not consumed in its original state, it is often used as a marinade for fish and meat or can be made into many secondary sauces called Vietnamese dipping sauce (nước chấm) to be served with nem or chả giò (fried egg rolls), gỏi cuốn (spring rolls or summer rolls), bánh xèo (sizzling cake), bánh hỏi (steamed rolls made of rice-flour), bánh cuốn (Vietnamese rolled rice cake), thịt nướng (grilled pork), and cá chiên (fried fish) just to barely name a few. Nước chấm is made by adding water, citrus (lime juice and/or vinegar), sugar, spices, chopped chilies, finely chopped garlic, or other ingredients into the bottled fish sauce.

Fish sauce is a base to open up a world of culinary possibilities. When combined with other ingredients like sugar, lime juice, and chilies, the “fishiness” mellows out and its ability to add richness and a layer of flavor to everything it touches becomes apparent. It is interesting to know is that not all fish sauce is created equal and the way to prepare nước chấm can vary from region to region throughout Vietnam. Depending on the kind you use, you will need to put your own twists on this recipe or adjust the amount used. This nước chấm deal is all about making it fit your taste. The quality is different among different brands of fish sauce. And Red Boat and 3 Crabs are the most popular brands of Vietnamese fish sauce.


Fish sauce is so important to Vietnamese cuisine

Both a flavoring element and providing the salt for the dish it is included in, fish sauce is so important to the cuisine of Vietnam that almost all known Vietnamese recipes call for it. You have been mystified by Vietnamese cuisine and wondered what is in it that makes it so good. Wonder no more! Let’s go on a Vietnam food tour!