Adapted from Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table by Mai Pham (HarperCollins, 2001). Copyright 2001 by Mai Pham.

Makes 1 cup

Nuoc cham is a must at every Vietnamese table, no matter what is served. You can 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 nuoc cham. If it's clear and dotted with chopped chilies, 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, nuoc cham is best when freshly made. I prefer the intense flavor of the tiny Thai bird chilies, but any hot chilies will do.

Ingredients

  • 3 Thai bird chilies or 1 serrano chili, or to taste
  • 1 clove garlic, sliced
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 2/3 cup warm water
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 5 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons finely shredded carrots for garnish (optional)

Instructions

Cut the chilies into thin rings. Remove one-third of the chilies and set aside for garnish. Place the remaining chilies, 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.) Transfer to a small bowl and add the water, lime juice and fish sauce. Stir well to dissolve. Add the reserved chilies and carrots. Set aside for 10 minutes before serving.

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