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Ode to Nuoc Mam


I’ve received the honour of invited contributer to this blog. But  since the invitation, I have been nothing less than a terrible truant. So until I get my act together, I’ll be posting a few old posts from my private blog. Enjoy.

I had some friends over on Sunday for a leisurely lunch and made my special Magic Rolls (you’ll get the low down on them another time). They went down a treat, but more importantly I impressed myself too. I know, you’re not supposed to do that or if you do, not openly or publicly admit to it, but it’s the truth, I impressed myself. Not with the Magic Rolls per se, but with a devilishly good batch of nuoc mam.

My nuoc mam is so often hindered by an unbalance of sweetness, saltiness, spiciness but on Sunday I was on the money. It’s shame I can’t post it back and prove it to my mum (although she would feign indifference, I know on the inside she’s be quietly proud).

So, I bestow upon the world, this rare gift, my own personal recipe which I have decided to name:

Almost As Good As My Mum’s Nuoc Mam Nuoc Mam


4 Red Bird’s Eye Chilies

2 Big Cloves of Good Garlic

5 Tablespoons of White Sugar

2-3 Generous Lemons

3 Tablespoons of Water

5 Tablespoons of Fish Sauce


Using a mortar and pestle grind the chilies and garlic with the assistance of a little sugar into a paste. Depending on you preference, the more you grind the hotter the sauce. Traditionally this is quite a fierce piquant sauce, and you grind the chilies whole (without the stalks) but with the seeds. The raw garlic gives it an extra bite, although I do warn anybody, this is not date food: the combination of fish sauce and the garlic in this treatment is devastating.

When you have a nice paste, transfer it into a container, one that you will use to store the sauce in. So preferably something that can be securely sealed as any spillage is going to result in not so pleasant pungent smell for a good few days and also, fish sauce can flavour anything in its immediate radius so best protect on both accounts.

Now add all the sugar (yes it looks like a lot but trust me, this sauce is full of strong flavours and there is no point on wimping out the sugar because of what the government says. And don’t substitute for any of the Canderel rubbish. This recipe calls for good old fashioned genuine sugar). I prefer caster because it dissolves quicker but granulated is fine too.

Then add the water. In general, I try to use water that’s been boiled and then cooled. I don’t know why, but it seems right, that and my mum does it too. Add the juice of two lemons, taking good care not allow the pips to fall into the sauce (as the pips can resemble the crushed garlic somewhat) as that’s just not good nuoc mam etiquette. Then add the fish sauce taking care not to splash all over yourself .

Now give it good old stir.

Now taste the sauce, if it’s a little too salty (too strong on the fish sauce flavours) then add the last lemon to even it out, and if too sour, add a little more sugar. The sauce is should be terribly moreish and if balanced has even notes of the saltiness (fish sauce), sour (lemons), sweet (sugar) and heat (garlic and chilies).

Now serve with everything (maybe not cornflakes). Nuoc mam has a heat half life, that is, it will be at it’s peak (hottest) on the first day you make it and reduce it’s heat by half by the next day and so on. Of course that’s not entirely true, but you get what I mean. The sauce is good for a week, probably even two and I recommend you keep in the fridge to maximize preservation.

Joking aside, this is really versatile sauce that can brighten up many a meal, that doesn’t need to be restricted in the traditional sense. Try it with fried eggs and omelets, any type of grilled or lightly fried poultry or pork, it will be great as a dipping sauce for meaty types of seafood like salmon and prawns, also it is a perfect accompaniment to sides of salads, in particular lettuce, cucumber and sliced tomato. If you can get your hands unripe mangos, it’s a perfect dressing for that too. And I imagine it would be wondrous with avocados.

Making it will prove to all your Vietnamese cooking prowess. Personally I judge Vietnamese cuisine by the nuoc mam rule of thumb – once you try, you’ll see why.


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