When the society has developed to a certain extent as we know today, the more we hear those definitions such as “art” posted to everything we do in life. From the most basic thing in the growing chain of humanity such as eating is now called with a more “dainty” name as “the art of eating”. Or simply speaking about communication, which is merely the most original and fundamental activity in the existing functions of humanity is now accompanied by the word “art” as the “art of communication”. It seems that everything we do in society nowadays must bear “the art”, or “be artistic”. Probably, to many people, the fact that the word “art” emerges from everything that they do, creates the class, which means “no art, no class”. To some others, art must and originally itself bear the aestheticism, it must convey something known as the soul and the thoughts of the one who uses art as a means along each of their most fundamental activity. Then, in the end, to actually think about it, about what art really is, we assume that it is something that is much simpler than that. However, as people say: The simpler it gets, the more sophisticated it truly is.
If you are someone who loves foods and flavors, even if you are not, you then realize, or probably have, the omittance of just one kind of spice in a first class dish in a first class restaurant by a first-class Michelin will turn one’s seat in a 5-star restaurant to a seat at any streetside food stall. And of course, the dish then is not the dish that is widely praised anymore. Just like “from hero to zero” in a blink of an eye. Well, this is mostly true applying to any types and kinds of different countries’ cuisine. However, today is not the day for global cuisine but just Vietnam cuisine. Because you know, the hard criticism goes to the critics. As we have just gone through a bundle of things about art, spices for particular, you must have realized how important that spices are. Maybe it is why we commonly hear people go to their lines on the movies like “you should add some spices to your life”. Just imagine a world without spices, how boring is it gonna be? Well, also for Vietnam cuisine, “nước chấm” is like a kind of spice that without it, Vietnam cuisine will be as boring as it can be, as dishes without any salt. So let us find out about this interesting Vietnam food tour right now.
1. What is “nước chấm”?
Well, actually “nước chấm” is the sauce that you foreigners usually use. However, we do not use the word “sauce” here because it does not describe exactly what “nước chấm” is all about. In another way, “nước chấm” is a kind of sauce but not just any kind of it. You see, there are many kinds of sauce, but mostly, they are in the form of thick soup not just completely watery. For Vietnamese, when using the word “nước chấm”, people will easily draw their minds to the kind of sauce that is made mostly from water, which is watery but not that thick as sauce, for example, ketchup that you are used to knowing. In addition, if you mention “nước chấm” with just any Vietnamese, most of them, probably up to 90 percent of Vietnamese will come up with “nước mắm” – fish sauce, or something similar to that. The reason for this is that many Vietnamese kinds of nước chấm are made in traditional ways from nước mắm, which means they include salty, sweet, and sour flavors.
Vietnamese fish sauce
Of course, each different dish has its own type of nước chấm, but most dishes use the same salty-sweet-and-sour-flavored sauce that we have just mentioned above because its flavor simply fits with just any kinds of dishes. If you come to Vietnam without trying any kind of nước chấm, it will be such a great loss. Many people also comment that Vietnam cuisine without nước chấm is not Vietnam cuisine anymore. For example, the renowned West Lake Shrimp Cake. Obviously, the delicious cake is the first factor creating the popularity of the dish itself. However, what differs West Lake Shrimp Cake to any kinds of shrimp cakes in Hanoi or other places is the small bowl of nước chấm. In fact, the reason why West Lake Shrimp Cake is so popular is the absolute appetizing sauce that fits with the taste of mostly Northern people. And about how well it fits Northern people’s taste, we will save that for later.
2. The history of Vietnamese “nước chấm”
In our opinion, the history of all kinds of sauce in Vietnam derives from fish sauce because it was the first sauce to appear on our land. On discovering the culinary tour in Vietnam, you see that many people love fish sauce or basically, it just appears in most every dish that you try in the country. Sometimes, you even find that it is so talked-about and question yourself of its charisma. And then, you started to conceive yourself that Vietnam is the homeland of fish sauce. Nevertheless, the reality is always completely different from what we have thought or imagined. According to some documentaries, fish sauce was first born in Carthage, a republic country in North Africa, now is a part of Tunisia. From 2nd Century B.C, the locals of Carthage came up with the brilliant idea of embalming the sea fish with salt, combining with the heat from the Sun of Mediterranean Sea to create such wonderful Carthage sauce, which was not only used but was also sold to their neighbor countries from across the Mediterranean Sea. Later on, just until the appearance of the Silk Road, did the sauce get into China and Japan through the path and was favorably used in these two countries.
Chili fish sauce
About the part of Vietnam, there is no such documentary recording when and where the fish sauce appeared in the country, except for some mouth-to-mouth documentaries stating that Vietnamese learned to make fish sauce from the Chăm (Urang Campa). Especially at wars in Vietnam, when meat and fish were perceived as “luxury”, our ancestors, grandmothers, and grandfathers had to mix white rice with some fish sauce to eat in order to add more flavor to the plain dish since there was hardly any food. Well, this is right, to most well-off families at that time because in fact, poor families did not even have enough rice to eat for a household that had too many children, and people started to add other things in such as corn, potato, and cassava to the rice. Anyway, back to the point, because of what we have just told, lots of Vietnamese people, mostly middle-age such as our parents and elderly such as our grandparents still have the habit of mixing some fish sauce with the rice as a “must-have spice” every time they eat, in spite of what meal it is. Our youngsters do not have that kind of habit, and some may even find sauce fish is quite salty to eat with white rice, from those successors, we find that fish sauce is such a fundamental spice to the life of each Vietnamese.
So, the fish sauce has gone through such a long history of its own, at least 1.000 years. Despite the fact that fish sauce was first to be found in Africa, brought to the hands of the European then finally spread to Asia; despite Chinese and Japanese having come to use fish sauce before Vietnamese for 500 years; despite Korean, Thai, Filipino nowadays still use fish sauce in their cuisine, fish sauce is still the quintessence and the sign of Vietnam cuisine.
3. What is Vietnamese “nước chấm” like?
Honestly, there is no such thing as the “standard” for a bowl of nước chấm in Vietnam because basically, each person has his or her own different taste and people also like making sauce “by hand”. “By hand” here means using none of the assistance such as scale or tools to weight the amount of spices needed but just making a rough estimate. This is true for most households in Vietnam when our parents cook, they also use the same method. We do not know how about the restaurants, maybe they still use scale and tools, or maybe the chefs have been familiar with making the sauce by hand but still remain the same flavor in every dish.
Cham Cheo – a special sauce of Vietnamese Northwest
Although there is no standard for a bowl of sauce, in each region, the sauce has its own characteristic that meets with the taste of the people living in those places. In this part, we will not mention this but will go through it in the next one. Basically, you just need to know that there are a million types of sauce so, in fact, the “standard” is also diverse. However, in Vietnam, as we mention, most sauce, not all of them, is watery. Each time we eat something that needs sauce, we will just make some, probably half or one-third of a small bowl of sauce. However, to dishes, which use much sauce or use it as the main ingredient such as bún chả or bún nem, depending on the number of eaters, the maker will decide to make more or less sauce because the sauce is now used as a kind of soup adding to the dish.
4. What are the types of “nước chấm” in Vietnam?
As we say, there are many kinds of sauce and their tastes also diversify amongst regions.
In general, Northern people would like the flavor to be “just enough”. It is slightly hard to imagine what the extent of “just enough” is but frankly, there is probably no word can describe it more clearly. “Just enough” here means all the flavors go just well with one another, not too salty, not too sweet and not too sour. Some people who like it to be a little bit spicy can add chili sauce or sliced chili to the sauce. We can say that Northern sauce is quite easy to eat and mostly everyone like it because all the tastes are “just enough”. If you like it to be more salty, spicy, sweet or sour, you can add sugar, salt, chili or vinegar to the bowl.
For Central people, spiciness is just their thing. Therefore, all their dishes including sauce are also spicier than usual. Their dishes are also affected slightly by the flavor of the South so they are quite sweet. In general, most Northern people do not like Central or Southern sauces because they are either too sweet or spicy. Of course, they are just a few examples because most restaurants know how to please the guests from all over the country despite, the sauce can still be a little bit sweet compared to the taste of the North.
The South, as above, love the sweet flavor so their sauce, as well as most dishes, are all slightly sweet compared to normal. Just a little off topic, even the sour soup of the South is too sweet. Hardly can you find that sourness that you have been looking for in a Southern dish. However, if you like sweet, Southern and Central cuisine will be the best.
Below is a list of some typical kinds of sauce in each region in Vietnam so let us take a look.
The first name in this list must definitely be mắm tôm – shrimp paste. Shrimp paste is one of the most popular kinds of sauce that you can only find in Vietnam and is also used in many dishes, such as bún đậu mắm tôm. You must have come across this name for a thousand times because the dish is truly talked-about and of course, it is also one of the greatest specialties in Vietnam. And the ingredient that contributes to the name of bún đậu mắm tôm is, of course, mắm tôm. If you love it, it will be like heaven. If you do not like like, you will like to stay away from it a thousand miles. It is similar to the case of durian. There are people who are addicted to it and there are people that only seeing it makes them sick. Not everyone can eat mắm tôm because of its smell, some people say that it is really stinky! Mắm tôm is simply made from fresh shrimps and embalmed with salt, after being fermented will bear a very “unique” smell. In the North, people think that the longer the shrimp paste is fermented, the better the flavor. If you have tried bún đậu mắm tôm, you will find that in the shrimp paste, there is not only the paste but also other ingredients such as green lime, sugar, sliced chili, and a layer of frying oil put on the top of the paste. When using the dish, all you have to do is stirring everything together. The fact that these ingredients are added into the paste is because the original smell of the paste is not so bearable to some people, by adding other ingredients, the flavor is also enhanced and the smell is acceptable.
The delicious bun dau mam tom
Mắm cáy is another special sauce of the North derived from Thái Bình. This sauce is made from the meat of cáy – a kind of crabs living in the coastal area. The meat will be embalmed with salt, put in a sealed pot and aired under the Sun for about a week. After a week, alcohol ferment is added into the pot of mắm cáy. The taste of the sauce is very special and can be used alongside noodle and boiled pork.
Since the Central is a coastal area and is rich in seafood, most kinds of sauce in the region are derived from marine ingredients.
Mắm cái is one of the favorite sauces of the Central people, made of anchovy – a kind of sea fish. The sauce is mostly used in Quảng Ngãi region and can be used along with many different kinds of food such as fermented rice sheet, boiled vegetable, and boiled pork.
Sour shrimp paste is another typical sauce of the Central that you should definitely try once if you have the chance to visit this place. Sour shrimp paste or mắm tôm chua is probably the most popular in Huế. Sometimes at night when you are wandering around on the cyclo, the drive will take you to the ancient Áo Dài Street where you can find the placing selling sour shrimp paste. The paste is made of fresh shrimps soaked in wine and salt, then galingale, garlic, sugar, and fish sauce are added in the last stage of fermenting. The paste takes a long time to be done and can be used with many dishes such as boiled pork. You can even eat the sauce as a separate dish because there are shrimps in it so it is not different from a shrimp dish.
Sour shrimp sauce mixing with papaya
Mắm nêm is a very popular sauce of the Central, especially in Đà Nẵng City. The sauce is specially made for using with rolling fermented rice sheet with pork. The sauce is made of fish embalmed with salt for about three months. The flavor is absolutely outstanding and the original sauce is usually added with pineapple, sugar, chili, and green lime. Actually, mắm nêm is also widely used in the South but the taste is sweeter compared to that of the Central since they use more pineapples and add more sugar to the sauce.
There is also many other kinds of sauce in the Central that you can try out like squirt sauce or oyster sauce.
On arriving in the South, you will find that this place has a great system of streams and rivers. And because the South also has many big coastal cities, it gives the region a rich source of seafood. This is why most of the sauces in the South include ingredients from the sea and rivers.
Mắm rươi is a widely known sauce from Trà Vinh. The sauce is made of rươi, a creature living in the rivers with the scientific name Nereididae. Just like other sauce, mắm rươi is also made in the traditional way, which means rươi meat is embalmed in the pot with salt and water, then put out under the Sun for about half a month. Mắm rươi is easily recognized with the honey color and light scent. When you use mắm rươi, you just only have to add some lime juice, and sliced chili, if you like it to be spicy, to the sauce and use it with boiled dishes.
If sour shrimp sauce of the Central is made from shrimp, mắm còng from the South is made of còng – a kind of crab easily found in the river with the size is relatively bigger than a small crab. Mắm còng is the typical sauce found mostly in Southwestern provinces such as Long An or Tiền Giang. The meat is embalmed in the pot with many different traditional ingredients, including the secret ones from each sauce maker. The fermenting time for a pot of mắm còng is around 45 days. You can use the sauce with boiled dishes or simply add it to bún riêu – riêu noodle, in which the main ingredient is crab, it will help enhance the flavor.
As you see, there are hundreds of different sauce kinds in Vietnam and each of them has its own variant. This is why people usually say nước chấm is the soul of Vietnam cuisine. For its variety, Vietnamese sauce can be used with just any kinds of dishes from the simplest to the most sophisticated, from homes to the most famous 5-star restaurant.
5. The importance of “nước chấm” in the life of Vietnamese
Despite in normal meals at home or in a big party in such luxurious restaurants, sauce is something that cannot be omitted. A full meal in Vietnam does not only have delicious foods but also a bowl of sauce to add up the spice. It can be a bowl of chili sauce, ginger sauce, shrimp sauce, garlic sauce, or just any kinds that can be used alongside with the dishes. Although sauce is just something you regard as the “side-kick” of the main course, it is actually what makes the dishes what they are. This reminds us of the story about salt. When the King asks his daughters “how much do you love me?”, while the two sisters say they love their father as diamonds and gold, the smallest one says that she loves him as much as salt. Obviously, this put the King in rage because comparing to diamonds and gold, salt is such something regarded as “invaluable”. However, in the party to welcome the prince from the neighbor country, the prince helps the princess by making the King realize how important salt is in our daily life by requesting to eliminate salt in every dish. Only until then does the King realize how terrible and boring a dish is without salt as how such a simple thing can make so much change.
Simple meal with sauce
For Vietnamese, a small bowl of sauce owns the same power like a dish of fried fish cannot be perfect without garlic sauce or a tray of bún đậu mắm tôm cannot be used without a bowl of shrimp paste. Of course, it is not like that some Vietnamese will die without their nước chấm but sauce is really fundamental in our life. Nước mắm is not only just a side dish to Vietnamese. If people from other countries regard nước chấm, for example, nước mắm as the solvent as the Korean use fish sauce in making Kimchi, or the Thai just use fish sauce for spring rolls, Vietnamese use fish sauce as a solvent, a spice, and also a delicious and separate dish. Through such a long time of history, nước chấm has gradually developed and become a significant part to the bones of Vietnamese. It is also a great feeling to see how far it has made its way through more than 1.000 years and until now is still gratefully and respectfully treasured by all Vietnamese, not just merely food lovers.
We hope that through this journey, you will find how various and beautiful our country’s cuisine is and maybe in your next trip to Vietnam, you can have the chance to try out different kinds of sauce in our country to find out the greatness hidden in this small bowl.