There’s no way around it–you can’t do Vietnamese food without nước mắm (fish sauce).
It’s the main base in nước chấm, a light dipping sauce that accompanies most Vietnamese dishes. You’d think this would be an issue for Vietnamese vegans and vegetarians, but it’s actually the easiest thing, especially for those of us who grew up around the spiritual traditions of vegetarianism.
Continuing with #VeganMofo18 (I’m behind in prompts but that’s ok), I’ve been developing a few recipes inspired by my family, starting with this post! I could dedicate another post to fish sauce itself (and the vegan version), but today we’re talking about nước mắm chấm chay, or vegan fish dipping sauce. “Vegan fish sauce?!” Is this a disrespectful departure from my own culture? Before continuing, I want to note that this concept is nothing new. What kind of sauce do you think Vietnamese Buddhist temples have been using for generations, for vegetarian rice and vermicelli dishes, during ngày chay (vegetarian fasting days)? Who else loves temple food? 🙂
Ngày chay: Chay means vegetarian in Vietnamese. Ngày chay means vegetarian fasting days, as per Buddhist practice, which can vary by tradition. Typically, those who adhere to this will practice vegetarianism on certain days, including holidays such as Lunar New Year, and on the first and fifteenth day of the lunar calendar. Some people practice a vegetarian fast 6-10 days a month. And there are others, like my grandma, who practice yearlong vegetarianism as part of their spiritual development.
While vegetarianism is an important part of Buddhism, and integral to my cultural experience, it should be noted that not everyone in Vietnam is Buddhist, and not all Buddhists adhere to vegetarianism. Not everyone in my family is strictly Buddhist (including myself), but spiritual vegetarianism is definitely a respected tradition that played a large part of my upbringing. When practicing Buddhist vegetarianism, one avoids meat, fish, and eggs (and sometimes onions and garlic).
The word for vegan in Vietnamese would be thuần chay, but this phrase is often unnecessary in my family, as we just refer to vegan dishes as chay. This is because most vegetarian dishes already exclude eggs, and dairy is rarely used in Vietnamese cooking. It depends on where you are though–these things are established and understood in my family, but it may be less obvious in other settings.
My family and I make this vibrant sauce all the time without measuring or writing anything down. Soon, you too, can whip this up with your eyes closed. In my family, we typically just refer to this sauce as “nước mắm (chay)” because “nước mắm chấm (chay)” is kind of a mouthful! It’s absolutely essential for so many Vietnamese dishes, so I figured it’d be a great reference recipe to share, before sharing more Viet recipes on the blog, including:
+ vermicelli bowls of several varieties
+ spring rolls
+ broken rice
+ various marinades and dressings
+ SO MANY MORE DISHES
Forget the generic weak sauce you might find at restaurants–this homemade sauce beats all. The perfect nước mắm chấm is a complex balance of sweet and savory, sharp garlic, and spice, all brightened by the tartness of fresh lime juice. It’s a fusion of umami that is quintessentially Vietnamese, with flavors that are bold and delicate at the same time.
Every family has their own preference of flavor ratios, and this is mine. Use the following as a reference point, and turn this sauce into your own!
Vegan Vietnamese Fish Dipping Sauce
Nước Mắm Chấm Chay
makes about 2 cups of sauce
Time: 10 minutes
- 3 medium garlic cloves
- 2 small Thai chili peppers, minced (or to your taste!)*
- 1/2 cup lime juice (about 2 medium limes)
- 1.5 cups coconut water**
- 3 tablespoons sugar***
- 1 1/2 teaspoons Himalayan sea salt
- Using a mortar and pestle, finely crush the garlic and chili peppers. Add a dash of lime juice and a dash of salt while crushing, as it helps give the mortar and pestle some abrasiveness, speeding up the process. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, you can also mince the garlic and chili peppers.
- Combine the crushed garlic and chili with the other ingredients, in a bowl or jar, and stir well. Adjust the flavors until everything is well balanced to you. I often end up making adjustments, based on what’s available, or the amount I want to make.
- Enjoy as a dipping sauce for springrolls, eggrolls, or dumplings, or drench your vermicelli bowls in it! This sauce will keep for up to a month.
*If you don’t have Thai chili peppers on hand, you can also substitute a tablespoon or so of chili garlic paste! I do this frequently when I forget to pick up the fresh chilis.
**My favorite is Harmless Harvest, but the Chaokoh brand at the Asian store is also great! Be sure not to get coconut water with added sweeteners or artificial preservatives, as this will negatively affect the taste. You can also choose to use water, but note that you’ll need to adjust the flavors (adding more sweetness). If using water, it also won’t keep as long, a couple weeks, in comparison to a month with the coconut water.
***You can use any sweetener of your choosing; I frequently use maple syrup as well. Brown sugar or coconut sugar will also work, and these will result in a darker sauce, with more caramel notes. Adjust to your preference.