America’s taste buds have long embraced the culinary traditions of Asia. As cravings for these flavors become more frequent, so does the desire to grab a condiment bottle out of the pantry for a quick fix. In recent years, soy sauce has become so popular that it trails only just behind ketchup in the American condiment market. Ingredients like teriyaki and miso are turning into household staples throughout the country as Japanese cuisine becomes a very popular choice for American diners. In recent years, Korean cuisine has followed, a welcome guest to the growing party of worldly cuisines. Kimchi and gochujang are becoming wildly popular flavors in contemporary eateries throughout the United States — bulgogi and Korean fried chicken have become “foodie” favorites. These are all flavor profiles that would have been completely alien to a vast majority of the American population just a decade or two ago.
As Japanese and Korean cuisines settle into the American mainstream, diners become confident in their ability to explore food further. Vietnamese Americans have leaped at the opportunity to introduce their cuisine, and what better represents the cuisine than nuoc cham (pronounced "nook chum") – the ubiquitous Vietnamese dipping sauce. Fish sauce is a flavor that has been virtually absent from the American palate until recent years, and nuoc cham is the perfect vehicle to deliver it to the mouths of America. Jimmy Ly, chef and owner of Madame Vo features nuoc cham prominently and vouches for the sauce, stating, “I think it has such a distinct flavor and so much umami. It’s very prevalent in Vietnamese cuisine.”
Sweet, salty, tangy, and extremely savory, the dipping sauce bears huge similarities to America’s favorite condiment – ketchup. Despite nuoc cham seeming to have all the characteristics necessary to become an American favorite, it has yet to take off and experience the same level of success as teriyaki, miso, and kimchi.
Dr. Dane Hoang, a dentist based in Dallas, has spent the past few months working to introduce nuoc cham to the American public and elevate it to the level of these other widely accepted Asian staples. She spends her spare time working on her startup, Dr. Dane’s Kitchen, bottling nuoc cham and other Vietnamese condiments out of a small commercial kitchen with the intent to sell in local grocers.
“This idea was born out of necessity,” she said. “I entertain often and wanted to provide my friends with little bags of sauces since they all love my cooking. I was unhappy with the nuoc cham I could find on the market, so I bought some bottles and made it myself.”
Dr. Dane believes that it has taken far too long for Vietnamese cuisine to wiggle its way into the mainstream.
“I think sometimes Vietnamese people are reluctant to enter the mainstream market. We gravitate towards the markets we are comfortable with – Vietnamese and Asian neighborhoods,” she said.
Having witnessed such a love for nuoc cham within her diverse group of friends and family, she sees no reason why her product shouldn’t be found on grocery store shelves around the country.
“I would love for all this to take off. I would love for Whole Foods to carry my sauces,” she said. “I hope that we can see nuoc cham in mainstream grocery stores within a year or two.”
Though America is waiting for nuoc cham to arrive in home kitchens, one American chef has been embracing it for years. Chris Shepherd, James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of the restaurant group Underbelly Hospitality, has been very open about his love of fish sauce and Vietnamese cuisine. For him, discovering nuoc cham was a revolutionary experience.
He says, “I loved the peanut sauce at the Vietnamese restaurants I would go to – I would put it on everything. One time I was eating bún and someone handed me nuoc cham and said, ‘Hey, use this instead.’ It was mind-blowing. I asked, ‘Where has this been all my life?’”
Ever since his discovery, Shepherd has featured nuoc cham in his restaurants. “I’ve been incorporating nuoc mam and nuoc cham into my menus for almost 16 years now,” he said. “It’s a very special ingredient. Traditionally I would hide it, but now people love the stuff.” In his 2019 cookbook Cooking Like A Local, he even dedicates an entire section to recipes utilizing the Vietnamese staple.
Shepherd speculates the recent popularization of Vietnamese cuisine in the United States is associated with its infatuation among culinary experts.
“Once we started to see chefs say that Vietnamese food is their favorite, people started to take interest. It’s well-balanced, delicious, and clean on the palate,” he noted.
As nuoc cham appears on more menus and more shelves, worries regarding authenticity are bound to emerge. In particular, the language used to describe and label nuoc cham is in question. Cookbooks and restaurant menus are infamous for watering down foreign foods like nuoc cham. David Chang’s Momofuku features a recipe for nuoc cham relegated to the title “fish sauce vinaigrette”, and contemporary Vietnamese eateries such as Súp Noodle Bar go as far as referring to it as “sweet and sour fish sauce”.
Dr. Dane Hoang says this is unnecessary. “We need to present it for what it is. ‘Vinaigrette’ is very misleading. We have to teach the public how to pronounce the names of our foods. People will learn how to say it – we don’t give non-Vietnamese people enough credit,” she said.
Nuoc cham is on the road to sweet and savory glory, and it is nothing short of a team effort. From Shepherd’s first use of the sauce on his menus back in 2006 to Ly’s current endeavors in popularizing the condiment in his restaurant, the rise of nuoc cham has been a long time coming. The restaurant industry is working hard to uplift Vietnamese cuisine and flavors into the spotlight. As Vietnamese food rises in popularity, so do those cravings, and with entrepreneurs like Dr. Dane, here’s hoping her nuoc cham will be on the shelves, ready for Americans to reach for a quick fix.