Vietnamese Caramel Fish Sauce – My New Magic Potion

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Does anyone else cook like this?  You read something or see something or hear something then all of a sudden you’re hit with a new obsession that requires exploration.  That’s what happened to me recently when I was reading through Charles Phan’s Vietnamese Home Cooking.  I saw a recipe for one of Vietnam’s mother sauces.  It’s  Caramel – Fish Sauce or Nuoc Mau.  That’s right, the bittersweetness of burnt sugar with the “aromatics” of fish sauce together in one place.  Chef Phan features it in the super popular dish, Clay Pot Chicken.  Somehow it got stuck in my mind that the sauce would be perfect for brining a turkey.  Unfortunately when I tried to sell the idea to a friend who was in the kitchen when I made the sauce I got nowhere.  Perhaps it was the stench of the process. Making the sauce is like jumping into the meaning of the word funk.  Whew!  Quel arome!

You make the caramel in the usual way of cooking sugar until it browns, but then, instead of adding cream or butter as one normally would you pour fish sauce into the boiling sugar.  The heat and fish sauce bubble up and a truly funky cloud of steam envelopes you.  Don’t do this project if you have clean hair, or clothes.  You will need to immediately disrobe and leap into the shower.  However, once you’re finished you have a magical ingredient that is sweetly funkly, deep in flavor and the definition of umami.  In the last week I’ve used it in the following dishes to add depth and complexity:  Corn Soup, French Onion Soup, April Bloomfield’s Lamb Shoulder from A Girl and Her Pig, Vinaigrettes for Lentils, Brining Turkey Thighs, and I’m looking forward to trying Serious Eats’ Spareribs cooked in Caramel Sauce.

Fish Sauce just added to burnt sugar (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

It’s my new magic potion.  I’m really trying not to use it in a sweet pie.  Although I can’t get the idea of using the deeply fragrant elixir with pumpkin out of my head…

As for the recipe, I have issues with making caramel so it doesn’t crystallize and have developed a fairly foolproof way.  So here is my version. I have chosen not to add additional flavoring ingredients so that I can have a more versatile pantry item.  So check your recipes and add lime juice and chiles as needed for finished dishes.