Back in January, I had the opportunity to go to Phu Quoc island, off the southwest coast of Vietnam. I probably wouldn’t have ventured there had it not been for one thing: this is where they claim to make the best fish sauce in the world.

What exactly makes it the best? That’s what I wondered too, and I’m happy to say that my quest was not in vain. My story on Phu Quoc fish sauce appears in today’s food section of the Washington Post, where you can read all about my adventures drinking nuoc mam, meeting my fish sauce guru, and the biggest revelation to me of all — the Italians also once used fish sauce, and it’s coming back! That little tidbit opened me up to a whole new set of possibilities in how to use fish sauce, which I hope to share more about on this blog.

I had so much fun writing this story — from trekking all over Vietnam to sampling various types of fish sauces to getting to talk to people I’ve long admired. One of those people is the one and only Andrea Nguyen of the blog Viet World Kitchen, my indispensable resource for all things related to Vietnamese food! Not only did I learn all about fish sauce from some of Andrea’s posts, I also had the great privilege of talking with her about the brands she recommends, which you can find out more about here. Thanks so much, Andrea!

Lastly, I couldn’t write about fish sauce without giving you my mom’s basic formula for Vietnamese dipping sauce, the stuff you eat with spring rolls, vermicelli noodle bowls, salads, wraps — indeed, everything. Technically it’s referred to as nuoc cham, but in our home, we simply call it nuoc mam.  The recipe also appears in today’s paper, and Andrea has a version as well on her blog.

Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce

1 part fish sauce
1 part lime juice and/or distilled white vinegar
1 part sugar
2 parts water
garlic, minced
Thai bird chilis, thinly sliced
grated carrot for garnish

You can make this the traditional way by pounding garlic, chili, and sugar with a mortar and pestle until the mixture forms a thick paste, then mixing in the liquids. Or you can also use the following method. [Update: I have found that pounding makes such a difference in taste that it is the only way I make nuoc cham now! The method releases all the garlic and chili juices and makes for a sauce tasty enough to drink. Just kidding... kinda. :) The sugar provides some friction, to make pounding easier. ]

Combine fish sauce and lime juice in a bowl. Heat the sugar and some of the water on the stove or in the microwave and stir until the sugar dissolves. Let this cool and combine with the fish sauce, lime, and the rest of the water. Taste and adjust to your liking, adding more sugar for sweetness, lime for sourness, or fish sauce for saltiness. Add minced garlic, slices of Thai bird chilis, and, for garnish, a few shreds of grated carrot.

This tastes best made fresh with lime, garlic, and chili. But the sauce will keep much longer (a month or more in the refrigerator) if you make it with vinegar and leave out the garlic, chili, and carrot until serving. Just freshen with a bit of lime juice when you’re ready to use.