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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!

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

Also in The Perfect Pantry:

Rice stick noodle salad with caramelized shrimp
Green chicken curry with eggplant
Pineapple shrimp curry
Easy pad Thai

Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.


Thanks for your recommendation. I will look for this brand of fish sauce in Singapore, & if I can't find it, I will look for it if I go Thailand. Most folks love to collect souvenirs when they travel, but I love to collect herbs, spices and sauces, haha

Lydia, I'm gonna have to look for the 3 crabs version, sounds good. For the record, I have the usual fish sauce (1st link).

I'm impressed that you had the perseverence to taste test all the fish sauces to find teh one you liked best! Makes sense... my recipe for nuoc chom uses a different brand and has more sugar.

Lydia--A very informative post! We always have fish sauce in our house, and it sees fairly regular use. I never pay much attention to the brand, though, so I had to go check just now. Turns out we have the Three Crabs brand too!

Lydia, now that I have access to any number of Vietnamese grocery stores within steps of my apartment, I'm going to have to get myself a bottle and make the sauce. It might be my very favorite dipping sauce of all time, but I've never known how to make it!

I'll definitely be looking for this brand. That Vietnamese dipping sauce is one of my absolute favorites. I love those Vietnamese noodle dishes where a bowl of that comes on the side and you pour it over the noodles when you eat them!

This is fascinating to me.


Noobcook, Peter, Genie, Kalyn, Paz: Please do look for this brand, and let me know if it works for you. I think it's great, especially in this nuoc cham.

Julia, I certainly didn't set out to taste every brand, but I tasted a lot of different fish sauces until I got to one that tasted "right" to me. It was fun, and meant many trips to the Asian grocery stores (and I don't need to have my arm twisted to do that!).

Terry, hooray for Three Crabs! I'm sure the first time I bought it, it was the label that got my attention. But I stopped looking after I found this one. I do think it's the best.

This is so good to know because I have fish sauce on my shopping list. I'll keep your tips in mind :)

Kristen, this is one of those cases where the brand really does make a difference. I hope you like this one as much as I do.

Fish Sauce is the elixir of Vietnamese cuisine, life and blood. I've got quite a collection going too, wish I had more garage space!
Thanks for sharing the love of fish sauce Lydia!

White on Rice, would love to know of some other brands you like. I'm happy with Three Crabs, but I might be persuaded to test some new ones.

Lydia, I sought out the brand and found it at a Vietnamese grocery store two blocks from my house. I just mixed up my very first batch -- yum! I think it's going to be even better when it's cooled down and ready to go, but I'm so amazed that the ingredients melded right together and made a delicious sauce. I'm baking chicken (marinated in soy sauce, chili oil, olive oil, lime juice and garlic) right now that I'm going to then cool and slice up to use in the bun gao -- I also picked up some rice noodles at the same grocery store!

Thanks so much for the recipe and for the inspiration to actually make this. I now have a huge bottle of Three Crabs, so I plan to make it much more often!

Genie, I'm so excited! The nuoc cham is better when it's cooled, and it will keep in the fridge for weeks -- though it's a tiny bit addictive, so odds are you'll be mixing up new batches on a regular basis. Sounds delicious with the chicken, and the rice noodles will just soak up the sauce. Yum!

Lydia, it, um, keeps longer in the fridge if you don't use it every day. Stay tuned...Friday I'm going to post a recipe that features it in a totally different manner!

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