Nước Mắm is a pungent, salty, sweet, umami-packed sauce that is a treasure of Vietnamese cuisine…and my childhood! Drizzled over dishes or served as a dipping sauce, it always provides a unique depth of flavor.
My Mom’s Nước Mắm Formula
There is always a jar of this caramel colored sauce in my mom’s fridge. Lucky for me, she’s in the habit of sending us home with some whenever we’re in need!
Unlike my dad’s homemade French mayonnaise recipe, I’ve had a harder time getting this sauce just right. Becaaauuuse, I wasn’t following my mom’s advice…you just have to feel your way through it!
It’s not so much a recipe as it is a formula that must be tweaked and adjusted every single time you make it. Sometimes you’ll need more lime juice, sometimes less fish sauce, and so it goes.
Once you trust your sight and your taste buds, you’ll be able to create a nước mắm sauce that is perfect for YOU each time!
Gather Your Ingredients
- Granulated sugar — provides sweetness and a slightly syrupy texture once dissolved.
- Water — combined with the sugar to create the base.
- Fresh garlic — my mom says ‘always more garlic’, but start with two cloves.
- Vietnamese fish sauce — this bottled sauce is made from fermenting fish and salt. You can find it at your international market (more on that below).
- Fresh squeezed lime juice — look for plump, juicy limes.
- Red chilis — I’m referring to the small, red chilis that may be referred to as Thai chilis at your grocery. Use fresh, not dry. You can also omit the chilis, but I always add extra! Love it spicy!
Selecting Vietnamese Fish Sauce
Ok. You’re going to walk down the aisle at the international market and be overwhelmed by the choices of fish sauce brands. I’ve only known my mom to use 2 or 3 different brands in my lifetime.
Her current go-to is called Hon Phan Thiet One Crab. Many people like Viet Huong Three Crabs (both, in addition to Flying Lion brand, are produced by the same company). Still others prefer Red Boat 40°N (it’s simply anchovies + salt), considered to more premium.
Then you’ll find labels referring to Phan Thiet and Phu Quoc, premiere fish sauce producing locations. Phan Thiet is a coastal city in South Vietnam and very near where my mother grew up. It’s believed to be the birthplace of fish sauce. Phu Quoc is an island off the southwest coast in the Gulf of Thailand (it’s gorgeous!).
You can also find very premium, aged fish sauces with a price tag to match.
Bottom line: 1) You can’t go wrong with any of the brands I mentioned above for making this dipping sauce, but you may eventually find one you prefer best. 2) Lesser quality fish sauces should be saved for cooking processes. 3) Don’t spend money on a super premium fish sauce for making nước mắm.
How To Make Nước Mắm (or Nước Chấm)
You may see this dipping sauce referred to as nước chấm or nước chấm cá. Literal translations aside, my mom has always called this combo of ingredients nước mắm, so that’s how I refer to it.
- Combine sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring just until the sugar dissolves. Set aside to cool. (Yep, we just made simple syrup!)
- Stir in the garlic, 2 tablespoons of fish sauce, the juice of one lime and a few slices of chili (if you’re using it).
Check the color and give it a taste. You’re looking for a clear amber color and just the right balance of sweet, salt, and citrus.
You won’t be adding any more sugar, but adjustments can be made for salt and citrus by adding more fish sauce or lime juice, a little at a time until it reaches the right balance for you.
Helpful Recipe Tips
Fish sauce will last two to three years, even after being opened. As it sits, it will continue to darken and intensify in flavor. For that reason, the recipe card below displays 2 to 4 tablespoons of fish sauce. If I were to use this formula with a brand new unopened bottle, I would likely use 4 tablespoons. The day I took these photos, I made this with an older, less than half full bottle and used about 3 tablespoons. That’s why you have to use all your senses and taste as you go!
My mom has always stored fish sauce at room temperature in a closed pantry (cool, dark space), as do I. Many bottles state ‘refrigerate after opening’. I think a lot of Vietnamese cooks store at room temperature, but they are going through fish sauce like crazy. If you are an occasional user, buy the smallest bottle you can find and store it in the fridge.
Store the dipping sauce in a glass container with a tight fitting lid in the refrigerator. We’ve just introduced fresh ingredients to the fish sauce and want to protect their integrity. It will keep for a couple of months. (Glass is ideal because it’s won’t take on the smell of the fish sauce!)
How To Use Nước Mắm
Always provide a dish of nước mắm alongside Vietnamese egg rolls or spring rolls, and bánh xèo (Vietnamese crepes, or ‘happy pancakes’ as our family calls them). Drizzle it over Vietnamese rice or noodle dishes (like bún thịt nướng, grilled pork over rice vermicelli + fresh veggies).
It’s an excellent condiment for all types of grilled meats and Vietnamese dishes.
More Asian-Inspired Flavors!
- Rotisserie Chicken Pho in the Instant Pot
- Easy Chili Crisp Dipping Sauce
- Spicy Whiskey Glazed Chicken Wings
- Green Tea Yuzu Sour Mocktail
- Vietnamese-Inspired Chicken Meatball Appetizer
- Banh Mi Chicken Burgers with Scallion Mayonnaise
My Mom’s Nước Mắm Recipe (Vietnamese Dipping Sauce)
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- ¼ cup water
- 2 cloves garlic finely minced
- 2-4 tbsp Vietnamese fish sauce
- 2 fresh limes juiced, to taste (not bottled juice)
- 1-2 small red chilis sliced very thin, to taste (optional)
- Combine the sugar and water in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring just until the sugar dissolves. Set aside and cool completely.
- Stir in the garlic, fish sauce (starting with 2 tbsp), garlic, lime juice (start with the juice of 1), and chilis.
- Add more fish sauce and lime juice to balance the salt and citrus to your taste.
Nutritional values are estimated and provided as a general guideline only. I earn a commission from Instacart from qualifying ingredient purchases.