Making good fish sauce dipping sauce (nước mắm pha) is a very important skill in a Vietnamese kitchen. My mom didn’t believe that Lamp could cook until she saw that he could make good nước mắm. Likewise, making nước mắm is a nerve-wracking experience for me when we visit his family.
That strong emphasis on good dipping sauce was a major deterrence for me to venture into making vegan dishes. It seemed quite difficult to replace the distinctive taste of fish sauce in the dipping sauce that I am so used to. I finally got the chance to challenge myself when a vegan friend suggested that we get together to make Vietnamese food. Instead of my usual vegan stew, I decided to make vegan chả giò (Vietnamese crispy spring rolls), which of course required a good dipping sauce.
I was quite happy with the way the dipping sauce turned out: the color looked just right and the taste is more complex than simple soy sauce-based dipping sauce
I soaked 8 grams of kombu in 400ml of cold water overnight, then heated the water until it just began to bubble. I poured the liquid out into a bowl (I reused kombu to make soup later on), let it cool, and added 1 can of coconut soda (you can use water, if coconut soda couldn’t be found). The liquid was sweet with a strong seaweed taste and a hit of coconut at this point. I then seasoned it with kecap manis, a little bit of soy sauce, salt, sugar, and lime juice to taste. Minced garlic and chillies were added at the end and they all floated up to the top, a sign of good dipping sauce (if we use the same test that is often used for fish sauce dipping sauce).
Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the vegan meal we served up and made liberal use of the dipping sauce. And my vegan friend commented that it was the tastiest one she has had. I am glad to see that my idea worked out quite well.
One thing that still bothers me, however, is that salt really stood out from the rest of the ingredients. This is difficult to describe: the dipping sauce wasn’t overly salty; it was seasoned just right for a dipping sauce, but salt definitely made its presence known. This is in contrast with fish sauce, where even though the fish sauce itself is very strong and salty, the salt itself blends in with other ingredients so that it usually can’t be detected. This sauce now makes me wonder if it’s possible to make a kombu sauce by fermenting kombu in salt, so that I can get both the seaweed taste and the saltiness without having salt stand out in the sauce. We’ll get to this question one of these days.