If you like Southeast Asian cuisine (Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino, Laotian and Cambodian) then you have already tried fish sauce. It is also used in Japanese and Korean cuisine. Nước mắm (pronounced ‘nook-mum’) means ‘fish sauce’ in Vietnamese. It has a very strong flavor and before you run away, it’s usually diluted and only a small amount is used in cooking.
Fish sauce was first used in the 5th century in Southeast Asia and has persisted until now. Nước mắm is usually made from anchovies and is fermented for a period time with salt and water. The fish, salt and water are placed in large wooden vats and then slowly pressed to extract the liquid. Fish sauce that has been fermented for a short period has a distinct fishy smell. When fermentation occurs for a longer period, there is a nutty flavor.
No One Size Fits All
Each family has their own distinctive version of nước chắm. There are some basic ingredients, but each family will adjust the finished product to their own tastes and preferences. I remember staying with a Vietnamese friend of my mom’s when I was little while my parents were traveling. She offered a snack to me, and a favorite of mine at the time was rice with nước chắm. When I had it this time at my mom’s friend’s house, her version of nước mắm was really sweet. It was quite a change from the way that my mom makes hers, which is much more tangy.
Here’s a version of nước mắm from our home. This is not the watered -down, carrot-garnished version offered in many Vietnamese restaurants. It is the real deal. The amounts of the ingredients can be adjusted to your preferences. Just taste it while you’re making it and experiment.
This is what you’ll need:
- 1/2 cup of quality fish sauce (I use Three Crabs brand)
- 1/2 cup of warm water
- 1 tbs sugar
- 2 lemons or 3 limes (juiced)
- 1 tbs white vinegar
- 3 cloves of fresh garlic (minced – please do not use the ready stuff in a jar)
- 3 tbs sweet chili sauce
- 2-3 hot Thai chili peppers chopped into little slices
- 1 glass jar to store your sauce
- Add the fish sauce, sugar and warm water together and stir. The warm water will help to dissolve the sugar. Then add the rest of your ingredients and stir. If you want a little more punch to your peppers, cut them into small slices and crush them. If you want less heat, just add them chopped. Put your sauce in a jar and store it in the fridge.
The fish sauce, sweet chili sauce and peppers can be found at most Asian food stores. This condiment is a staple in the cuisine. I will post more Vietnamese recipes in time, but most of them are accompanied by this sauce. If you have this on hand then you can simply serve it with many various dishes. The sauce will keep for up to 3 months in the refrigerator.
Live well and be happy!