Complementary, tasteful sauces are no stranger to cuisines around the world. But while many consider saucing a serious business, few do it like the Vietnamese.
Contrary to in the west where people often enjoy chunky pour-over sauces on their dishes, dippings are much more common here, since Vietnamese people like their food refreshing and harmonious in terms of flavors.
And while there are more to table condiments in Vietnam, dips remain vital to everyday meals. Locals might even consider it a crime to have fried tofu without shrimp paste or morning glory without fish sauce!
With its long, bountiful coastline, many Vietnamese sauces are naturally made of seafood ingredients. Don’t worry too much if you’re vegan though, because there’s also a fair variety of plant-based options for you to explore.
Scroll down below as Vietcetera takes you through six of the country’s most popular and versatile dipping sauces.
If you’re not a fan of nước mắm, or Vietnamese fish sauce, then this country’s cuisine is probably not for you. In short, it’s the amber-colored juice of salted fish that has been fermented for up to a few years. While very strong in smell, the resulting flavor is bursting with umami, making nước mắm a common alternative to salt in Vietnamese recipes.
Although fish sauce isn’t unique to Vietnam, this condiment is so generously used for both seasoning and dipping here that it’s not an exaggeration to declare nước mắm the essence of the country’s cooking. You can grab a bottle from the shelves of virtually all supermarkets across the land.
As a dip, nước mắm is usually diluted with water, equal parts sugar, drops of lime juice plus garlic and chili slices — at which point it becomes nước chấm. While hardcore Vietnamese swear by eating everything with this dipping sauce, including pizza and plain white rice, foreigners will have got a kick out of nước chấm too if they love bún chả, bún thịt nướng or cơm tấm.
Nước mắm and consequently nước chấm can be made vegan using pineapple juice, maple syrup or simply soy sauce as a base. Check out this recipe if you’re interested in recreating.
Next up we have kho quẹt, which is essentially nước mắm taken up a notch through cameralization and the addition of ingredients such as garlic, shallot, pork fat and dried shrimp. It’s most authentically made and served in a clay pot.
This cooked dipping is perfect to spice up otherwise unseasoned food like rice, congee or steamed vegetables. For a heartier meal, feel free to treat kho quẹt as a base and throw in some protein such as shrimp and pork belly, both of which taste amazing when caramelized.
There is plenty of ready-made kho quẹt on the market, but you can try making your own using this recipe.
If nước mắm is at best a five out of ten on the “daunting Vietnamese flavors” scale, then mắm tôm might very well be a nine. Made with fermented shrimp, mắm tôm (Vietnamese shrimp paste) is pretty much a cousin of nước mắm, though what sets the former apart is its untreated broken-down shrimp component. Therefore, instead of a liquid state like nước mắm, mắm tôm has a thick pulp-like consistency and an arguably unappetizing pinkish grey color, while boasting a much more pungent smell.
Needless to say, locals and tourists alike either love or hate this dipping sauce with a passion, and a significant number of unfamiliar foreigners have been said to chicken out as soon as they get a whiff. But don’t let any of this kill the adventurous gourmand in you — anyone who has successfully conquered mắm tôm would agree they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Plus, more than often, mắm tôm isn’t consumed raw. As a dip, spoonfuls of it will be mixed with at least sugar and citrus juice to tone down the saltiness. This delicacy is most well-known in northern provinces, enjoyed with specialties such as bún đậu and chả cá (grilled fish) Lã Vọng. You can also find hints of mắm tôm seasoned into bowls of bún riêu and bún thang.
Muối tiêu chanh
Muối tiêu chanh, or lime with salt and pepper, is a delightfully simple dipping that’s best suited for white meat and seafood dishes. This is a vegan dip that the Vietnamese usually like to pair with chicken and crab for the most part, although feel free to soak your steamed veggies in there too.
Just like the name suggests, the sauce is made of lime juice, lime leaf, salt and pepper. If you don’t have a problem with MSG, you can also add a pinch to round out the flavor profile with a bit of sweetness. Combine all ingredients and your muối tiêu chanh is ready to be served!
Xì dầu & Tương đen
Both xì dầu (soy sauce) and tương đen (hoisin sauce) originate from Chinese cuisine and are naturally vegan, using fermented soybean paste. But they slightly differ in taste and usage.
Xì dầu is a liquid sauce with a strong umami flavor that’s great for a variety of dishes, from Vietnamese meat and vegetables to that of other East Asian cuisines, namely Korean and Japanese. Like nước mắm, it's versatile enough to be enjoyed with even rice alone.
Meanwhile, tương đen is thicker like ketchup and most commonly known as a must-have condiment for Saigon phở, as well as Cantonese dishes like char siu and stir fried noodles. It's also generally on the sweeter side compared to xì dầu.
Xì dầu and tương đen are widely available in stores here, although the latter is much easier to come across in the south of Vietnam where there’s a larger Chinese-descent population.