But before you do that, know what food goes with what sauce…
Dark & Smooth
Tuong is a unique dipping sauce comprised of fermented soybean paste. The paste is concocted by adding a special type of fungus to roasted soybeans, and the ingredients are allowed to ferment in a jar until the sauce achieves its signature salty, savory flavor. Tuong is popular in vegetarian dishes, especially those enjoyed by Buddhist monks. Known for its dark brown color, this smooth, mellow sauce is often mixed with peanuts, finely sliced vegetables, or fish sauce to provide a smooth, crunchy backdrop for summer rolls (goi cuon) – a Vietnamese specialty consisting of pork, prawn, vegetables, and rice vermicelli all wrapped up in rice paper.
You can find goi cuon and warm homemade tuong with peanuts, along with many other traditional Hue dishes, at Ngu Binh (82 Nguyen Van Troi, Phu Nhuan).
The Sunshine Sauce
Mam tom, or fermented shrimp paste, requires lots of sunshine and plenty of time to mature. To start the process, small shrimps caught during the rainy season are dried in the sun for three months, then mixed with salt and ground into a powder. The new talc-like substance, along with sugar, gets aged over the course of about two and a half months resulting in a liquid form. From there the mixture is again left to dry in the sun for another ten days and becomes a pinkish-gray sauce. The smell is pungent and is an acquired taste, but first-timers can temper the sauce with a little bit of lime juice.
Mam tom goes well with vegetables, noodle soups, grilled meats, and hot pot ingredients. Sample the combo at Cha Ca La Vong (36 Ton That Thiep, D1).
Chao (aged bean curd) is sometimes referred to as ‘Chinese cheese’ because its strong flavor and chunky texture are similar to blue cheese. Chao is made from curds of coagulated soy milk where cubes of tofu are air dried and slowly fermented with aerial bacteria and fungal spores.Once the tofu is dry, it is soaked in brine (a simple salt solution) and complemented by other ingredients like vinegar or chili peppers.
A little bit of this sauce goes a long way (definitely not for the faint of tongue), and is often served with grilled goat or goat hot pot to play down and offset the gaminess of the goat meat. Vietnamese also often eat it simply with rice for a quick meal. Try goat hot pot or goat barbecue, at Lau De (105 Truong Dinh, D1).
Fat & Rich
Kho quet is a unique dipping sauce with its own history. During wartime, it used to be made by the locals as a way to maximize the flavor of their dishes with whatever ingredients available when they couldn’t afford much else. Back then, the sauce consisted of a mixture of pan-fried pork fat, chili, pepper, sugar, fish sauce and salt – and dried shrimp if you were fortunate enough to have it. Kho quet is made by combining different ingredients like dried shrimp, pork fat, chili, pepper, sugar, and fish sauce into a frying pan. Now its modern incarnation is not as fatty and acts goes well with boiled greens, cauliflower, okra, carrots, and bitter melon. The rich salty sauce is also served with fried fish from time to time.
At Huong Lua 3 Restaurant (196 Street 48, D4), a big bowl of kho quet will be served with fried mung fish, a delicious deep fried fish served with rice paper, noodles, and pineapple.
All in one
Nuoc Mam Xoai (fish sauce with mango) is deliciously complex. Fish sauce is definitely the most popular condiment in Vietnam; you can find it served at all Vietnamese restaurants with nearly every dish. Alone, fish sauce is extremely salty but when you add the sourness of unripened mango to the mix, the liquid takes on a different character. This light sauce is great to drizzle over fried catfish or any kind of fresh seafood. It is sweet, sour, and savory all at once.
At Com Nieu Saigon (6C Tu Xuong, D3), they do their own take on the sauce by adding diced ginger and chili to the mix and it ends up taking on the extreme sourness of the unripe mango, the spiciness of the diced ginger and chili, and the sweetness of the sugared fish sauce.