Food Fight

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

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."

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.

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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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham