What's the Difference Between "Fish Sauce" and "Nuoc Mam"?

nuoc mam.jpg
Photos by Mai Pham
The light brown stuff in the bottle is definitely "nuoc mam." But it's also fish sauce.
It's 1:15 in the morning, and I am chatting online with Chef Kevin Naderi, asking for some clarification about his fish sauce vinaigrette. My brain is fuzzy, I'm trying to finish up an article, and we chat about something that, to me, just does not make sense.

"You use a fish sauce (nuoc mam) vinaigrette, right?" I ask.

"No, this is more Birdseye chili, shallot and garlic," he replies.

"I thought you said fish sauce vinaigrette?"

"Yeah, fish sauce but not nuoc mam..."

Okay. Stop. Pause and rewind. He said it's fish sauce but not nuoc mam. Really? Since when is that?

"Nuoc mam IS fish sauce, silly!" I told him.

"Yeah, but there's no red chili paste, carrot strips, lime juice," he replied. "When you call it nuoc mam people think of spring roll sauce." Hmmm. Okay.

So here's the thing: the words "nuoc mam" literally translate to mean "fish sauce." But since I could see his point of view, as a social experiment, I put this simple question up for debate on my Facebook page.

"Debating the difference between fish sauce, and nuoc mam, and I am losing," I posted, without going into detail about the nature of the debate. I knew people would chime in with their opinions and here's how the results went: The first Vietnamese person who responded to me, my friend Angelica, said, "Fish sauce is the brown sauce in the bottle, nuoc mam is the sauce that you mix with sugar and lime and chili, at least, that's how my mom explained it to me when I was little."

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The stuff in the small bowl that you use to dip spring rolls in? Fish sauce
I had been so sure that all my Vietnamese friends would back me up, that I was completely flabbergasted by her off-the-cuff response. "Traitor!" I accused her. "Not you, too!" I lamented.

Perhaps understandably, one of my non-Vietnamese friends, Claudia, chimed into to say that she thought nuoc mam was the stuff that you dip egg rolls in, and that when a bottle was labeled nuoc mam, then the stuff in the bottle is same sauce that you dip the egg rolls in. Again: wrong, all wrong.

Finally, one of my Vietnamese friends from college, who lives in Little Saigon, chimed in to call the discussion complete blasphemy (thank you, Thuy!). Like me, she knew that nuoc mam is, in fact, fish sauce, and explained that when you refer to the dipping sauce version of nuoc mam, you either call it "nuoc mam pha," which means "mixed fish sauce," or "nuoc mam cham," which means "fish sauce for dipping."

Even though we don't use the words "cham" or "pha" to distinguish between the pure-from-the-bottle fish sauce or the mixed-with-lime-chili-sugar-garlic-dipping-sauce version, Vietnamese people always know which version of "nuoc mam" is being used depending the dish.

nuoc mam 3crabbrand.jpg
Three crab brand. At the bottom of the bottle it says "fish sauce," at the top it says "nuoc mam"
So now you know, people. "Nuoc mam" actually means "fish sauce," and when we use it, we are talking about fish sauce, the fermented, dark-brown, salty fish sauce seasoning that comes straight from the bottle called Squid Brand, or Phu Quoc, or Three Crabs (Viet Huong). But it also also refers to the slightly sweet and tangy, light brown sauce that you dip spring rolls in, or get served as a dipping sauce or rice accompaniment in virtually any Vietnamese dish.

Make no mistake, all of it is collectively referred to as "nuoc mam."

Did I clear that up? Are we on the same page? Feel free to chime in if for some reason you disagree. This is not a philosophical question, but there are different takes on it from a cultural perspective. And from the fervent discussions on my Facebook page, I'm really interested in hearing what y'all think.



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17 comments
Mlacey1046
Mlacey1046

When I worked in South Viet Nam for my Uncle I had the distinct pleasure of partaking in the Real Phu Quoc #1 Nuoc Mam. Having it as a sauce or a condiment for our rice bowls was wonderful. I also had to "enjoy" the fragrance of #10 Nuoc Mam -The final squeeze of the fermented fish-salt-water mixture. Make skunk smell like Estee Lauder 

AsianGirl72
AsianGirl72

Here's my 2 cents: They're both the same thing.  It's the context in which you use it.  If I'm eating eggrolls and I ask for nuoc mam, a smart person would know I'm talking about the dipping version.  If I'm cooking a meal and I ask someone to pass me the nuoc mam, then they would know I meant the version in the bottle. 

Yvonne Breaux
Yvonne Breaux

I got the best recipe for Nuco Mam Cham from a man at Saigon Seafood (now under new name) who said to mash the garlic with sugar in a mortar and pestle then add it to the bowl with fish sauce and more sugar and lots of water, carrots and hot sauce.  Hard to beat.

ChetBellman
ChetBellman

I sometimes sprinkle a bit of nuoc mam on my trousers and then head to the SPCA when I'm feeling lonely and unloved.

Corey
Corey

Interesting, and I was dumb recently thinking panko was rice flour, nope it's wheat. Thanks for clarifying this though!

Megan
Megan

I think the confusion lies in the modifier of nuoc mam (forgive me for not using the accents).  I've seen the dipping sauce labeled as nuoc cham and the fish sauce alone as nuoc mam, and that's always how I've thought of it.  It's not the proper way to say it, but it in my mind gets rid of the confusion.

Finneganwakeman
Finneganwakeman

Oh Ms. Pham, how I love your writing!

What's the difference between Garum and Nuc mam?

Garum23
Garum23

on the phone with Kevin Naderia at 1am? ...about fish sauce.

someone please help this girl.

Chuck
Chuck

Much like bánh mì (which might be bread, or a sandwich) it all seems to be about context. If I'm eating bún thịt nướng and I ask for nước mắm, I'll get the prepared dipping sauce, but if I'm eating phở, I'll usually get a bottle of the straight sauce.

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

sounds like a great recipe! I normally don't mash my garlic, but I'll try it.

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

...and the dogs will head straight to your you know where! :) 

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

Thank you! 

I'd never heard of garum before, but evidently it is a type of fermented fish sauce used in the time of the Romans, something to "add flavor" to their foods. 

Vietnamese/Southeast Asian fish sauce is used as a flavor enhancer as well as a substitute for salt. We use it like the Chinese and Japanese use Soy sauce.  It goes on pretty much everything to create savoriness in a dish.

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

LOL, true story, we were online chatting. I do most of my writing late at night - and most chefs are up at that time. It works.

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

So proud of you, Chuck! That's exactly what I mean. Both versions are still nước mắm.  And, kudos for using the Vietnamese accents. :) 

AbbyDownton
AbbyDownton

 Nuoc Mam and Garum sound like the fish sauce my great grandparents made in their native Greece. I wonder if all peninsular and island cultures have an equivalent. I think Worcestershire sauce is basically the same, just jazzed up with flavorings like tamarind etc.

Nle82
Nle82

I completely agree that it is the same...it just depends on what else is put in it...regardless it is still nuoc mam. The mixed version is so we can dip our food in or pour over rice, as I'm sure if it comes straight from the bottle, it's probably not that good and definitely not recommended!

The concept is similar to soy sauce or nuoc tuong(?). Soy sauce can be mixed with chili oil (when eating di. sum), mixed with vinegar/lime sugar and garlic ot, but it is still soy sauce!!!

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