by Lisa

This is one of those things that can save your day, and it may be my new favorite thing to keep in the refrigerator. It’s not a dish, per se, but a basic recipe for a Vietnamese dipping sauce that is incredibly versatile and fantastically delicious.  The kids go nuts for it.

Composed of garlic, chilis, fish sauce, Nuco Cham is sweet and savory and light.  You can vary the proportions for your family’s taste, and then use it as a cooking sauce, a dipping sauce, a light dressing.   It works on poultry, beef, pork, tofu, crisp vegetables like cucumbers, cabbage, robust lettuces, bean sprouts, even fresh tomatoes.  It works with rice or noodles.  And the bonus is that you can make a double recipe, keep it in the refrigerator, and pull it out when you only have 20 minutes to get dinner on the table.   It’s especially delicious and easy if you have a countertop grill and want to make some quick grilled meat.  I buy whole, boneless breasts, and cut them into slim fingers, use a bit of fajita meat, or a pork tenderloin, which I also slice very thinly. These small bits are kid friendly, and easily handled by children with chopsticks, or threaded onto skewers (making utensils unnecessary), and most important, they literally grill (or stir fry) in a matter of minutes.  If you have your rice ready, or use glass noodles, which also cook in minutes, you can get a healthy, really delicious dinner on the table in a flash.

There are many recipes for Nuoc Chom, but the one I start with is from an old Food and Wine Cookbook, reproduced below.  Double it, use half, and save the other half in a glass jar in the refrigerator for a night when you really need it.  You can use the herbs or leave them out if you don’t have them on hand, and you can add the vegetables that your family likes. You can also use rice, or rice noodles instead of the pasta. Think of this as a general guide and technique. The possibilities are endless.

Vermicelli with Chicken Skewers and Nuoc Cham

serves 4

  • 5 T Asian fish sauce
  • 2 T sugar
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 T cooking oil
  • 1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut lengthwise into 12 strips (or an equivalent portion of beef, pork, or tofu)
  • 1/2 t dried red pepper flakes
  • 1 t red wine vinegar
  • 2 T  + 1 t lime juice
  • 2 T water
  • 1/2 lb vermicelli, or rice noodles, or enough rice to feed your family
  • 1 cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded and cut into thin slices
  • 2/3 cuup fresh mint or cilantro or basil–or any combination of these three
  • 1/3 cup chopped peanuts–also optional, but delicious if you have them on hand
  • Special equipment if you have it:  bamboo skewers, soaked in water so they don’t combust when you grill the meat
  1. Heat the broiler or light the grill. In a medium bowl, combine 1 T of the fish sauce, 1 T sugar, 2 cloves garlic, and oil.  Add the chicken(0r other meat/protein) and toss. You can let this marinate in the refrigerator for several hours if need be, or you can thread the meat directly onto wooden skewers.  Broil or grill the chicken until just done, about 2 minutes per side. Seriously.
  2. In a small bowl, combine the remaining fish sauce (4T), 1 T sugar, 1 clove of garlic, and the red pepper flakes, vinegar, lime juice,and water. Set this nuoc cham aside.You can also make this very early in the day.
  3. Cook the vermicelli in a pot of boiling, salted water until done.
  4. Put the pasta or other noodles on a platter and top with the cucumber, herbs, and chicken skewers. Pour the nuoc cham over all and sprinkle with peanuts.  Alternatively, use the nuoc cham to dress the chicken and cucumbers separately, have a large dish of herbs for sprinkling, and serve with individual rice bowls.