Nuoc mam pha is a basic Vietnamese spring roll dipping sauce, which you can easily customize to your own preferences. Taste-wise, nuoc mam pha is very similar to its Thai cousin, Nam Pla Prik (น้ำปลาพริก), but uses garlic rather than shallots. It’s a quick and simple sauce to make, and you can easily control the amount of heat by increasing the number of chilies- start with 2 chilies for mild, 3 chilies for medium, and four for hot.
- 2 ½ tablespoons fish sauce (nuoc mam)
- 4 tablespoons granulated sugar
- Juice of 4 limes
- red and green Thai chilies*, to taste
- 1 garlic clove
- ½ cup water
Optional Garnish: 1 tablespoon carrot, finely julienned or grated
- Peel and finely mince the garlic clove, then scrape the garlic against your cutting board with your knife blade until it turns into a fine paste.
- Vigorously stir the sugar into the lime juice to separate any clumps.
- De-stem and thinly slice the Thai chilies into rounds. Do not de-seed them. (As always, it’s advisable to wear gloves when handling chilies.)
- Add the Thai chilies, water, fish sauce, garlic paste and (if desired) the carrot to the sugar and lime juice mixture. Stir to combine and dissolve all the sugar.
For better flavor and more heat, refrigerate the sauce for an hour before use.
You can substitute serranos, red Fresno chilies, or red jalapenos, but you may only need one pepper or less; if using larger chilies, mince the chilies instead of slicing them.
Other Culinary & Linguistic Notes:
This sauce is one of a large category of Vietnamese dipping sauces that are often collectively referred to as “nuoc mam,” which are perhaps more properly called “nuoc mam pha” (“mixed fish sauce”) or “nuoc mam cham” (“fish sauce for dipping”). “Nuoc mam” by itself literally means “fish sauce,” but the English and Vietnamese terms shouldn’t be used interchangeably, as it can cause confusion (which is never a thing you want to deal with in a busy, multilingual kitchen environment).
Here’s the easy way to remember the difference:
- “Fish sauce” = pungent, dark brown, pure fermented fish sauce, used for making “nuoc mam” (you probably don’t want to dip food straight into this)
- “Nuoc mam” = either a bottle of fish sauce or a bowl of finished dipping sauce, depending on the situation (potentially dicey, but chances are good that you’ll get the correct sauce- if there’s any confusion, the other person will probably ask)
Don’t worry- even though the Vietnamese language doesn’t always use “cham” or “pha” to distinguish between pungent, straight-from-the-bottle fish sauce or the finished, mixed-with-lime-chili-sugar-garlic dipping sauce, it’s pretty easy for most Vietnamese speakers to figure out which version of “nuoc mam” is being used, depending on context. On the other hand, ask for “fish sauce,” and you’re probably going to get a bottle of Squid Brand, Phu Quoc, or Three Crabs (Viet Huong).
Also, don’t get “nuoc mam cha” confused with “nuoc cham chay,” which is a vegetarian dipping sauce, typically made with Maggi’s Seasoning or some other stand-in for fish sauce.
last updated August 17, 2023