Embarrassing confession time: While delicious goods from a world's worth of cultures flow forth from my kitchen, and while the fruits of that tiny galley that takes up 80 square feet of my house occasionally cause smiles and stares of envy, and while I love Vietnamese food with every fiber of my being . . .
. . . I fail continually at making nước chấm, that most basic dipping sauce of Vietnamese cuisine.
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It isn't hard, on paper at least: it's fish sauce, hot water, sugar, limes, garlic and chiles. Yet somehow, it never comes out like the nước chấm I get at restaurants. It's always too thin, or it's not sweet enough, or it has a washed-out flavor. I came to assume it was something like ranch dressing--the recipes out there don't create the same product as what comes at restaurants--except that while grocery stores practically give out ranch dressing with any purchase, it is damn near impossible to buy prepared nước chấm.
I was overjoyed, then, to find that Haley Nguyen is bottling nước chấm for the lazy and the poorly trained Vietnamese cooks. The sauce is called Thu Hà, and distribution channels are still being set up, but you can buy it at her restaurant Xanh Bistro. I got a bottle of it, and it's substantially the same sauce as what's served at Xanh. Sweet, garlicky, heavy on the umami.
We had it with meatballs wrapped with herbs and lettuce, which were dipped into it; it got sprinkled onto my daughter's rice (shh, don't tell any Asian people); it would work perfectly with takeout chả giò (Vietnamese fried spring rolls), and of course, it's required for bowls of bún thịt nướng (rice vermicelli with grilled pork and herbs).
Of course, now there's precious little incentive for me actually to learn to make the sauce. . . .