I don't know any other cuisine where dipping sauces feature so prominently as in Vietnam's. In fact, a meal here in some instances has so many bowls and ramekins on the table that one needs one's focus in order to dip into the right sauce, much like playing an awkward game of cards with too many rules. At Hanoi's bia hơi establishments, for every four or five dishes ordered there will be a corresponding number of sauces coming to table, too.
Nước mắm (fish sauce) forms the basis of many but not all. It most commonly gets combined with water, vinegar and/or lime juice and sugar to form nước mắm pha, somewhat mistakenly referred to in the west by the generic name nước chấm, a term in Vietnam which is broader in meaning and refers to a wider range of dipping sauces, including nước mắm pha. I don't want to get weighed down in a semantic debate so let's just say many ingredients get added to fish sauce to make dipping sauces and this depends on region, dish and personal taste. Garlic, ginger, lemongrass, chilli, carrot, young papaya, even dill, are amongst the aromatics clipped, crushed, cut or shredded into fish sauce. Even alone, fish sauce is a remarkable ingredient to dip food into, giving both deep sea and salt. To be frank, if you can't stomach or don't like fish sauce, you cannot experience Vietnamese cuisine. It has a mild flavour profile compared to other dipping sauces used across the country.
Soy beans are fermented to make a brown sauce called tương, its most famous pairing being the south's delectable hand-rolled gỏi cuốn or fresh spring roll. Because this sauce is sometimes scattered with crushed peanuts, is is also frequently mistaken for peanut sauce. (Indeed, peanut sauce is also used for gỏi cuốn, as is hoisin sauce) At a famous goat joint in Hanoi, I remember a very white milky tương of soy beans, to which we added sliced lemongrass and chilli. Tương is a word, too, for sauces made of chilli or tomato. Soy sauce, so synonymous with Chinese cuisines, is also seen on tables here, be it with fresh chilli, garlic or lately, a slug of wasabi.
Vietnam is a wonderful world of sauces, clearly. But for my tastes at least, there is funk amongst the fine. Mắm nêm is another sauce derived from anchovies, the fish favoured in the making of nước mắm. While the latter is extracted in a longer process in a pure liquid form, mắm is thicker, murkier fish residue and liquid. This condiment at the table is completed with the addition of pineapple, garlic and, particularly in the centre of Vietnam, chilli. At a recent bia hơi outing in Hanoi, the mắm nêm served alongside our grilled beef was flavoured with ginger.
Perhaps the most pungent of Vietnam's dipping sauces is mắm tôm, which renowned Vietnam food expert Andrea Nguyen describes as "stinky but stealthily good". Looking back through the blog at my descriptions of this sauce, I came across the phrases "purple poison", "fermented fishy rocket fuel" and "evil...purply concoction." Made from fermented shrimps in a process not dissimilar to that gone through for fish sauce, mắm tôm is not for everyone. Particularly apparent in the north, it is used as a dipping sauce for dishes as widely varying as bún đậu (fried tofu with noodles), Chả cá Lã Vọng (Hanoi's sacred fish dish) and thịt chó (dog meat).
In short, a book could be written on dipping sauces in this country. I've only scratched the surface of this essential element of the main cuisine(s) here, not even mentioning what occurs in remote and ethnic minority communities. That could be a book on its own, too.
It's not a project for me. I have enough trouble deciding which sauce to dip my tofu into.
Bún Đậu Bình Liên
Đặng Thai Mai St
West Lake District