You know that feeling when all of a sudden in a stroke of ingenuity or practicality, you try doing something differently, something new, make one tiny change, and think to yourself, why didn't I do this ages ago? My life would have been so much easier/better/less expensive! You know what I mean, right? Like when you turn your desk 90º and suddenly realize that you have a better view and your productivity has shot up, or when you walk past your normal lunch place and try that other spot on the corner only to find that their salads are fresher, their prices cheaper, they carry your favorite brand of chips, and the old guy behind the counter tells you you look nice today in a way that makes you happy, not skeeved out?
Well, I just had one of those moments.
I love Vietnamese food. Pho, barbequed beef, spring rolls, summer rolls, bun. From my (albeit limited) experience, it's all delicious. And the thing that usually makes it so good, is the ubiquitous nuoc cham sauce that's served alongside so many of these dishes. I'm a sucker for dipping sauces, and this one really takes the cake. Like so much of vietnamese cuisine, it hits notes of sour, salty, sweet, and spicy. It's light and fresh, (even healthy!) but so flavorful, and it tastes good on everything from stir-fried veggies to gym socks.
Until this week, I thought I could only indulge my passion for nuoc cham-dunked bites (I'm salivating as I type this) when I got it together to take a trip to Nha Trang in chinatown, or a couple extra bucks to go to O Mai nearby, or in a pinch to Saigon Grill for some take-out Goi Cuon Tom. Then it occurred to me. Why can't I make this at home? It's only got a few easy to find (and cheap) ingredients. I have access to the internet, home to a bajillion recipes, and I own the necessary equipment: bowl, spoon. How had I never thought of this before??
Well, I hadn't. And I regret that. But my discovery has left me forever changed. I suggest you try it too. Prepare to have your mind and tastebuds blown. And try not to obsess too much over all those times you could have eaten this and didn't. We live and learn. Onwards and upwards.
Nuoc Cham Sauce (adapted from Food and Wine)
Like most staples, there are a million different recipes for this sauce, and it varies depending on where in Vietnam it comes from. This is the version I made and loved, and will probably stick with because the proportions are so easy to remember. Of course, you can taste and adjust to make it sweeter, spicier, more acidic, or add more water to dilute it. As for what to eat it with, I poured some over a bowl of simply stir-fried veggies and rice. I also stirred some into a bowl of sauteed kale and scallions. It would be delicious with grilled beef, pork chops, shrimp, rice noodles, or over a salad with some tofu and crushed peanuts. Vietnamese food features a lot of fresh herbs such as cilantro, basil, and mint, all of which go well with this sauce. Make a double batch and keep it in the fridge--it'll last in a jar for a month. Though I dare you not to eat it before then.
2 red thai chiles, 1 medium jalapeno, (or a hefty pinch of dried red pepper flakes which I used because I didn't have a chile on hand)
2 medium garlic cloves, thickly sliced
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons water
In a mortar, pound the chiles, garlic and sugar to a paste. If you don't have a mortar, which I don't, you can mince the garlic and chile and then mash it into a paste with the sugar using the back of your spoon against the bowl. Stir in the fish sauce, lime juice and water. If you'd prefer a smoother sauce and have an extra couple of minutes, use hot water to dissolve the sugar. Feel free to garnish with crushed peanuts or finely shredded carrots.