A meal without nuoc cham is no meal at all. Corrine Trang.I am pretty sure that nuoc cham (nước chấm) is my favorite condiment.
When it comes to food, "favorite" is a marvelous adjective. It is so unabashedly subjective. So much more useful than, for instance, "best". Even so picking favorites isn't easy. The answer to "what is your favorite braise?" may be affected by so many variables - mood, weather, contents of the pantry. I have managed to come up with a top five soups list and even rank them, but the list and rankings are subject to change without notice.
Condiments present a different problem, there are not only so many to choose from; there are so many variations within each type. Much of what is used are prepared - in this case not always a bad thing. Consider ketchup. Heinz is my favorite ketchup. I will use others, Hunt's or DelMonte - even Sysco's House Recipe® - on french fries and burgers. Homemade is nice, but it just doesn't make it for that. Homemade Mayo is delicious, but I want Hellman's in my egg salad. Oh, and Mira- um, that other stuff, works well for breaking in a ball glove if you don't mind the stench.
Mustard is different. Webers is my go-to, but I have many favorites, like many styles and enjoy many combinations of flavor. I have found few, prepared or homemade that don't work for me.
Nuoc cham stands alone in its perfection. The slight difference in recipes just variations on the same theme. A sublime harmony of hot and sour, salty and sweet all wrapped in the embrace of umami. There is a personal reason I adore nuoc cham. I first tasted it, along with Tom Yum Goong (one of those five favorite soups) at a lunch which is a landmark on the path to my marriage. From the first taste of a spring roll in that sauce it was the beginning of love. The nuoc cham was pretty good too.
To quote the actor Jan Sterling: Erasers would taste good with this sauce.
The primary ingredient is fish sauce, the secret weapon in my kitchen arsenal. I have talked about it here and in other articles, and there is another in my blog queue. I have used many brands and changed my "go to" a few times, but I had never tried the new one that has been showing up in many things I've read or seen, with rave reviews: Red Boat.
From the descriptions it sounded to be the fermented fish worlds equivalent to First Cold Pressed olive oil. I was not disappointed. In the bottle it is a clear, dark rich looking elixir. It may be a trick of the eye, but it appears more viscous than others I've used. The taste is richer, with a more intense saltiness. Again it may just be my impression, but the flavor seems more direct. Less distractive notes.
One cannot discuss fish sauce without noting the smell (aroma is too polite a term). As I have put it elsewhere:
The aroma of first class fish sauce has most charitably been described by author and teacher Kasma Loha-unchit as having "a pleasant aroma of the sea". Asian food expert Bruce Cost likened it to "an odorous cheese", while being thankful that its fragrance is stronger than its taste. My own opinion of its bouquet is unprintable here, but I adhere strongly to the food maxim that sometimes the smell must be overlooked to enjoy the wonders of the taste.It is still unprintable, but you all know what I am referring to. This was different. It is still not a pleasant aroma of the sea. It is a somewhat cleaner aroma - if still fishy - but not displeasing to me.
I followed up with an utterly unscientific blind sniff test using the noses of two independent sources - aged 13 and 11 respectfully. One sauce tested was Red Boat, the other Golden Boy (my current standard). The results were identical. Golden Boy got a universally scrunched face and a "eeewwwww" or its equivalent. Red Boat evoked not distaste, but puzzlement. Unusual, but not off-putting - Ellie said it reminded her of tropical fish food. So much the better than "yuk".
Now to the preparation. I've been making nuoc cham for so long a recipe isn't necessary, but this was a test so I decided to use one. I selected author Andrea Nguyen's recipe from her blog Viet World Kitchen because it has you start by making limeade. I had never thought of it that way, but that's what the first few ingredients are. Per the recipe "as[k] yourself this question: Does this limeade taste good? Adjust the flavors to balance out the sweet and sour". The basics of being certain the foundation is appetizing before adding the fish sauce. Cool.
As to the optional ingredients, I added the chillies (from my garden) but skipped the garlic. I did add some finely grated carrot as I usually do - the ones from the CSA this year are so sweet and tasty. The result was unquestionably the best I have ever made. I wish you could lick the photograph.
Red Boat is sure to remain in my pantry. Golden Boy will remain as well. Like the best Olive Oils, The Red Boat will be reserved for those occasions when it can the star.
Like nuoc cham.
Red Boat is available online. In Buffalo it's available at Premier Gourmet, but I recently found it at Wegmans Transit location as well - oddly in the Organic Department.