Nuoc Cham – Vietnamese Dipping Sauce (Fish Sauce)

It’s been really cold in Manhattan in the past week and being cold makes me miss home – Sunny California. Besides warm winters, another thing I miss a lot about California is the delicious Vietnamese restaurants sprinkled all over the place. Manhattan’s bowl of pho or bún bò huế just doesn’t compare to what I can get back home.

So whenever I get a craving for Vietnamese food, my quickest solution is to whip up some Vietnamese dipping sauce. You know what I’m talking about – if you’ve ever been to a Vietnamese restaurant, it always accompanies any vermicelli or rice dish.

The making of Nuoc Cham – fresh lime, chili and garlic first – lime helps the garlic float in the fish sauce mixture!
I’m a huge fan of spice, citrus, and sweet+savory flavors mixed together, and that’s basically exactly what Vietnamese dipping sauce, Nuoc Cham, is made of – chili, lime, fish sauce and sugar (plus garlic and water). What’s not to love?

A quick go-to dinner for me looks like this: meat, rice, fried egg, and a big bowl of nuoc cham for extra flavor.

Dinner of Crispy Chicken, Tomato Fried Rice, Pickled Cucumber Salad and of course, Fish Sauce!

Nuoc Nam vs Nuoc Cham – same same but different?

The word “Fish Sauce” is one of the only (food) words I know in English that can mean so many things. Officially, it refers to the bottle of Nuoc Nam Fish Sauce that you buy from the grocery store which is just pure savory flavors of fermented anchovies. The smell could be off-putting to some but goodness, it’s so delicious. I like to use the one with the three crabs because that’s the only one I see Vietnamese households using. Wandering Chopsticks has a good breakdown on her blog with a better breakdown of different brands of fish sauce you can buy.

So of course, the other meaning of “Fish Sauce”, is the one I’m talking about today, Nuoc Cham Fish Sauce. I’ve come to find that Nuoc Cham is a free for all in terms of portions and mixtures. Much like how a barbecue sauce can vary in different parts of the States, Nuoc Cham is the same – it varies from region to region, family to family.

There is no “right” way to make it, it’s all a matter of preference. In some parts of Vietnam, they make their fish sauce more sweet, or savory, or more concentrated with less water. The list goes on, so once you establish a good base, it’s up to you to adjust the sauce to how you like it.

On my most hardcore cooking days, I will take out the mortar and smash the garlic

For me, I like using it in a rice plate for extra flavor on the side. But if you’re making fish sauce to add to pair with a vermicelli dish, you might consider diluting it with more water so that the flavors don’t overwhelm the rest of your dish. 

This is how I make mine: I begin by smashing my garlic/giving it a rough chop. If you like to eat the garlic along with it, you can mince it, or you can leave it in bigger pieces so that you can get the flavors out of the garlic. Then, chop up your fresh chili – I use 1 thai bird’s eye chili – and top it off with lime juice.

Tip: By pre-soaking your garlic and lime with just the lime juice will help the garlic stay afloat when you mix everything else together in the end. I usually let it sit like that for at least 10 minutes.

I like my fish sauce more concentrated so that I can dip vegetables in it, almost like a dressing!
As my garlic and chili is soaking up the lime juice, I begin making the other part of my sauce – a mixture of 2 part water, 1 part sugar and 1 part fish sauce. It’s best if you dissolve your sugar in the warm water first and put it in the fridge to chill. Once the sugar water is on the cooler side, I add in fish sauce, and then pour everything together! Voila, there you have it, Nuoc Cham!

Nuoc Cham – Vietnamese Dipping Sauce (Fish Sauce)

1/2 cup warm water
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup fish sauce (I use the three crabs fish sauce)
1/2 lime, juiced
3 cloves garlic, smashed or minced
1 thai bird-eye chili, minced

1. Mix garlic, chili & lime. Juice lime over minced garlic and chili.

2. Warm water with sugar. Dissolve the sugar in the warm water. If it’s too warm, put in fridge to cool down.

3. Mix everything together. After about 10 minutes once the garlic been sitting in the lime and the warm water is cooler, pour sugar water into garlic & lime mix, and add fish sauce. If you’re eating this right away, you can leave at room temperature, otherwise you’d want to put it in the fridge.


Vinegar – I didn’t have enough lime juice and I wanted to give my sauce more tartness so I added an additional 1/2 tbsp of vinegar to my fish sauce. Also, if you’re making a huge batch of fish sauce to leave in the fridge, a mixture of pure vinegar for acidity instead of lime will help keep much longer.

Sambal Oelek – You can add some Huy Fung chili paste if you want to add extra spice or to substitute if you don’t have any fresh chili on hand.

Stay tuned for recipes for the chicken and the tomato fried rice seen in this post!

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