Nuoc Cham

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.

Nuoc Cham
Photo: Greg DuPree
Total Time:
10 mins
1 cup


  • 1/2 cup warm water, plus more as needed

  • 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice (from 2 limes), plus more to taste

  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar or 3 to 4 tablespoons pure maple syrup, plus more to taste

  • 2 teaspoons rice vinegar (optional)

  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce (such as Three Crabs), plus more to taste


  • 1/2 small carrot, matchstick-cut or coarsely grated (2 tablespoons)

  • 1 (1-ounce) Thai chile or serrano chile, unseeded and thinly sliced, or 2 to 3 teaspoon Asian chile-garlic sauce or sambal oelek (ground fresh chile paste)

  • 1 large garlic clove, minced (1 1/2 teaspoons)


  1. Stir together 1/2 cup water, lime juice, and sugar in a small bowl until sugar dissolves. Add additional lime juice and/or sugar to taste; dilute with water if flavors are too strong. If there’s an unpleasant tart-bitter edge, add rice vinegar to fix flavor.

  2. Stir in fish sauce; add additional fish sauce to taste. (How much you use depends on the brand and your own taste.) Aim for a bold, forward finish that’s a little gutsy. Keep in mind that this sauce typically dresses dishes that include unsalted ingredients such as lettuce and herbs, which will need an extra flavor lift.

  3. If using, stir in carrot, chile, and/or garlic. (Offer chile on the side if diners are sensitive to its heat.) Serve sauce in a bowl on the table so diners may help themselves, or divide among small individual bowls in advance.

Make Ahead

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.

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