Fish sauce (Recipe: nuoc cham)
All this week, I'm updating posts from the very first month of The Perfect Pantry. New links, new photos, and some great recipes for summer.
When you taste something wonderful in a restaurant, and you ask for the recipe, and the owner himself shares the recipe with you -- and you've written it down, so you won't leave anything out -- you expect to be able to recreate that wonderful taste in your own kitchen.
So why did it take me years to make nuoc cham, the mother condiment of all Vietnamese cuisine, that tastes like it does in a restaurant?
The answer is in the fish sauce, and, as I discovered, all fish sauce is not created equal.
Asian fish sauce, made from anchovies, salt and water, is called nuoc mam in Vietnam, and in Thailand, nam pla. It's salty, and smelly, and indispensable in Vietnamese and Thai cooking, where it plays the role soy sauce plays in Chinese cookery. The quality and taste of fish sauces vary widely, and I tried many before I found one that produced the taste I was seeking.
Three Crabs brand is the one and only fish sauce in my pantry, and I've been using it for years. Stored in the cupboard, it will last for many months. Three Crabs is a bit different from other fish sauces available in my Asian supermarket, because it contains fructose, which makes it sweeter and also smoother than the naturally processed brands. To me, all that matters is that Three Crabs makes authentic-tasting nuoc cham, the all-important condiment and dipping sauce for summer rolls (nime chow) and noodle salads.
Authentic Asian fish sauce -- #4 on our readers' list of must-have-on-a-desert-island pantry items -- makes pad Thai, fried rice, catfish with ginger-lime dipping sauce, lemongrass chicken shrimp, Vietnamese pulled pork, pan-glazed tofu with red curry sauce and panko-crusted shrimp lollipops taste... well, the way they should.
Nuoc cham (Vietnamese dipping sauce)
Keeps in the refrigerator for a month or more. Makes 1-1/2 cups. Use as a dipping sauce or salad dressing for cold noodle salads.
1/2 tsp chili paste with garlic (Lan Chi brand is best)
2/3 cup hot water
1/4 cup sugar (or less, to taste)
1/4 cup fish sauce (use Three Crabs brand with pink label to achieve best flavor)
Juice of 1/2 lime
Place all ingredients in a small jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake!