As an agriculture country with such a long coastal line, traditional Vietnamese cooking features fresh ingredients while using fish sauce to enhance exposing flavors. If you’re a Vietnamese food lover, we’re pretty sure you’re familiar with fish sauce.
But if you’re not, like many of our Hanoi Food Tour‘s lovely clients, this blog post is talking about this staple condiment, which is just like Anthony Bourdain once said: “That fish sauce with chilis in it… whoaa that’ll just singe your eyes off.”
Traditional Vietnamese Fish Sauce
From the ancient time, Vietnamese fishing boats were too small to venture out to the deep ocean waters to catch big fishes. Therefore, they got to stay within the shoreline with basic nets collecting smaller fishes, much of what they had were black anchovies.
To preserve the fresh catch during the fishing season, fishermen layered sea salt between the anchovies. Back on land, the salted anchovies are transferred to large wooden barrels for up to 12-month aging process. During which, the liquid dripped from the spigot will be poured back into the barrel.
When the liquid got much better smell and taste, the fermented anchovies are slowly pressed to yield the salty and fishy sauce, which is called fish sauce, or “nước nắm” in Vietnamese. A good fish sauce is the one that’s drawn directly from the first press of a single vat, and is unmixed with other batches or diluted with water.
Phu Quoc, an island off the southwest coast of Vietnam, is believed to be the home of black anchovy, hence producing the best fish sauce in the country. Pure fish sauce from this island features a touch of sweetness, a mineral flavor, and a note of caramel.
Making A Standard Vietnamese Dipping Sauce
Dipping sauce, or “nước chấm” in Vietnamese, is made from the pure fish sauce. From the same fish sauce extracted from anchovies, there are endless variances of dipping sauces prepared for different dishes. They are set apart by their flavors and level of saltiness.
There is nothing more Vietnamese than a dipping sauce, which is the most common condiment when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine. It’s used to add flavor and texture to a dish, such as bun cha, banh xeo, and banh cuon. Instead of applying it to the cooking like other sauces, the food is typically placed or dipped into the dipping sauce.
By combining with sugar, water, rice vinegar, garlic, chili, fresh lime or kumquat, the dipping sauce, though still salty, has a lighter taste than its original fish sauce. Its flavor is commonly sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. Getting the hang of making a dipping sauce is an important step to making a Vietnamese dish just right.
To make a standard Vietnamese dipping sauce like a local does, combine water and sugar in a bowl. Add lime or kumquat juice in increments until you like how it tastes. Add fish sauce in small increments until you like how it tastes. It should be a little strong since it will be paired with unseasoned food.
You can adjust your dipping sauce to your own taste if needed, depending on what it’s going with. Finally, top it with finely chopped (don’t press it, otherwise it will sink to the bottom) garlic and minced bird’s eye chilies, then serve. You’ll then be able to use your dipping sauce for different Vietnamese food.
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