Sauces are key in Viet cooking; keep the most versatile sauces in your back pocket. Deploy them for traditional dishes, or use them to add a Viet imprint to anything from breakfast scrambles to DIY fusion tacos. Each Viet cook has a take on this ubiquitous sauce. Pronounced “nook chum,” nuoc cham literally means “dipping sauce,” but is also used to dress noodle bowls and can be sprinkled onto rice. Its lightness enhances other ingredients instead of taking over the entire dish.
The sauce can stand at room temperature up to 8 hours until serving. Lime juice dulls and can make the sauce slightly bitter if left longer; combine water, sugar, and fish sauce to make a base, then refrigerate, covered, up to 2 weeks. (Prep a double batch if you use it a lot.) To finish, add lime juice, vinegar (if using), and any desired add-ins.
VARIATIONS: For a vegetarian nuoc cham: Stir together 3 tablespoons light brown sugar (or 4 to 5 tablespoons pure maple syrup), 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice, and a rounded 1/2 teasopon finely ground sea salt in a small bowl until sugar dissolves. Taste and add additional sugar or up to 1 teaspoon rice vinegar to round out the lime juice. Stir in 2/3 cup lukewarm water and 1 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce. Finish with any add-ins before serving.