The Bold Vietnamese Sauce That Takes Sweet And Savory To A New Level

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If you're a fan of Vietnamese cuisine, you may constantly be craving spicy nước chấm or gingery nước mắm gừng to pair with your homemade noodle dishes or to pour over fresh bánh mì. However, the better match for your spring rolls and other go-to Vietnamese dishes may just be the overlooked sauce, mắm nêm.

Vietnam has long been praised for its sauces, which are able to balance savory, sweet, tangy, and spicy flavors all at once. However, mắm nêm takes sweet and savory to a new level and creates the perfect example of how an array of flavors can create a daring sauce. Initially, mắm nêm walks a fine line — this pungent yet crave-able sauce is no doubt an acquired taste. But, those who have dipped their beef soup noodles or grilled catfish into this sauce have never gone back.

What is mắm nêm?

Mắm nêm is a popular condiment that can be found across Vietnam, but it is especially popular in the country's central region. It's rare to find fresh, high-quality versions of this sauce outside of the nation. The sauce's signature pungent scent comes from the heavy dose of fermented anchovy sauce that creates the base of this condiment. The fishy smell can turn those who are unacquainted with this food off, but the nose alone is not to be trusted. The delicious flavor of this bold sauce definitely grows on you, and it's a taste unique to itself.

If you're not traveling around Vietnam, and you are not confident in your cheffing skills, you may be able to find it bottled when browsing around a local Asian specialty grocery store. Lots of online retailers via Amazon also sell this sauce, so you can have it at your dinner table in no time. And, we assure you, you haven't tried a sauce with a similar ingredient list to this one. 

Ingredients in mắm nêm

Anchovies have long acquired a not-so-envious reputation. Their strong umami taste is arguably not for everyone, but those qualities are exactly what makes them work so well in this sauce. The fermented anchovy or fish sauce gives this condiment its signature brown coloring and powerful fishy flavor. However, there are plenty of other ingredients that balance out the intense savory with sweetness.

Adding a hefty scoop of canned crushed pineapple is required in this sauce. While this may seem like a surprising ingredient, the fruity taste complements the bold fish flavor. Sugar is also commonly used to sweeten and round the mixture out a bit more as well.

Garlic and lemongrass are the two aromatics added that combine to create a delightfully nutty and citrusy flavor. Adding in some chili paste can also boost the heat level if you're into spicy food. An additional squirt of lime juice is also a must to highlight the tangier notes.

How mắm nêm is made and eaten

While this sauce may strike you as being a bit time consuming to make, it actually will only take you about 10 minutes from start to finish. So, if you needed just one more reason to try this unique sauce out for yourself, the quick prep time just might convince you.

The first step is to add the aromatics into a hot pan coated in oil. Once the delicious smell permeates your kitchen, you can add in your other sauce ingredients. Once everything is thoroughly combined, make sure to give your sauce a quick taste. Add an additional spoonful of sugar if your sauce needs to be sweetened, or dab in some extra chili for a spicier kick. It can then be transferred to a serving dish. Finish it off with a squeeze of lime before setting it on your table.

This sauce is typically eaten with beef, like crispy beef spring rolls or grilled meat. If you're not into using it as a dipping sauce, you can use it as a dressing and pour it over noodle dishes or salads of your choice. And if you don't plan on eating your sauce in one sitting, you can add it into an airtight container and store it in your fridge for a few weeks.