Street food: Vietnamese dipping sauce

Bursting with characters and oozing with taste, dipping sauces are key component of Vietnamese cuisine. But what if they were a lady, what kind of lady would they be? I dip my way through the sauces and discover the women behind the condiments. Word by me. Edits by Nick Ross. Photos by Francis Roux. The article was originally published on Word Vietnam Issue December 2013

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Miss Country

What? Tuong ban

Where? Easily found at street markets, especially where banh duc is sold

The Personality:  A fermented bean paste, made from soybeans and tofu ingredients typical of areas in the Northern delta. It is brown in color and rich in taste, yet it lightly melts on your tongue. Distinct from Western sauces, tuong ban perfectly reflects the femininity and culture of girls in Northern provinces of Vietnam. Its ingredients make this sauce popular with vegetarian meals, such as rau lang, rau muong and is often associated with banh duc nguoi or banh duc with peanuts.

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Miss Ugly Betty 

What? Mam tom

Where? Found in every street food eatery, especially with bun dau or thit cho

The Personality: This sauce is notorious for its smelly odour and purple colour, but after giving it a try, few people can resist its allure. Like the Vietnamese saying “handsome is as handsome does”, people fall in love with mam tom for its stunning taste. Mam tom is associated with thit cho, bun dau and even with some types of noodle, with people in the North always mixing it with sugar and lemon or kumquat that’s mixed until blended.

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Miss Different

What? Mam tep chung thit

Where? This kind of dipping sauce belongs to Hanoi. Hang Be street used to be dedicated to selling mam tep chung thit, with many stands still selling it here.

The Personality: This sauce is made from a combination of mam tep , minced pork meat, onion, sugar and oil. Which makes this sauce different is it looks more like a dish than a dipping sauce. Owing to its complex ingredients, this outstanding sauce is perfect for simple and mild food like white rice or boiled vegetables. Perfect for a simple and gentle man, mam tep chung thit is the girl with outstanding style that adds adventure and colour to his mild life.

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Miss China

What? Xi dau

Where? Easily found at street food locations, especially where duck meat is sold

The Personality: This sauce is also known as soy sauce, which originated in China. It’s a salty and earthy black liquid that’s used mainly for seasoning food or dipping with certain types of meat. Not many Vietnamese people prefer this sauce – not because of its origin, but because of the “imported” flavour that most cannot relate to. For many young locals, though, this sauce is gaining popularity when eaten with boiled duck – Peking roast duck, for instance.

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Miss Warmth

What: nuoc mam gung

Where: Easily found at any street food eatery, especially with oc luoc or boiled snails.

The Personality: Nuoc mam gungor Vietnamese ginger fish sauce – is also called mam gung for short. This sauce has a nice kick thanks to the ginger, with a bracing air of lime, that’s calmed by a touch of sugar. Chilli is often added to add extra heat. Mam gung is known for its warm flavour that’s usually paired with seafood, especially boiled snails. Since snails are a “cold” food, this sauce is used to avoid a stomach ache. For a cold and quiet guy, this “ginger” girl would be perfect to warm him up.

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Miss Hanoi

What: nuoc cham bun cha/banh cuon

Where: Found at street food stalls selling bun cha or banh cuon

The Personality: This sauce reflects the quintessence of Hanoian gastronomic style. It is the perfect harmony of fish sauce, vinegar, sugar and water, with added chilli, garlic and lime juice. Normally, this dipping sauce is enjoyed when hot. Different from other kinds of sauces, nuoc cham is more like a broth rather than a thick, dense sauce. It’s typical of Hanoian gastronomic quality, where the dipping sauce should be light and blended.

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Miss Encouragement

What: Muoi tieu chanh

Where: Found in street food spots with boiled dishes like chicken and seafood

The Personality: Distinct from other sauces, muoi tieu chanh is not a water-based sauce, but is the combination of dry ingredients: salt, a little sugar, chilli, pepper, and lime, with lemon leaf sometimes added for boiled chicken. This sauce is specifically used for boiled dishes since many believe that adding a dry element like muoi tieu chanh is the best way to encourage boiled foods’ own rich, sweet taste. In Vietnamese, the saying “chicken sings with lemon leaf” means that boiled chicken is best with muoi tieu chanh.


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