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Dipping sauce recipe for Vietnamese fresh spring rolls (Tương chấm gỏi cuốn)

When a reader’s request for a recipe for spring roll dipping sauce came in, I knew exactly what I wanted to share: my Mom’s handwritten recipe for the sauce.

It’s taken from the recipe book she prepared for me when I had to cook for myself for the first time (summer after freshman year in college). It was a great stroll down the memory lane to see such specific instructions for very simple dishes in that notebook. Also, note the stains on the page…I definitely relied on this recipe book for quite a while :)

The Vietnamese recipe is in the photo, followed by English translation and our additional notes after the link:

Handwritten recipe for spring roll dipping sauce recipe

Spring roll dipping sauce recipe, handwritten by Mom

Continue reading for English translation of the recipe and our additional tweaks


Gỏi khô bò (beef jerky salad) with green papaya or spaghetti squash

Yes, I know the proper name for the dish is gỏi đu đủ khô bò (green papaya salad with beef jerky). But it didn’t feel right to call it that after I played with the dish by using spaghetti squash instead of green papaya as the core ingredient.

Set up for making 2 variations of gỏi (salad):

ingredients for 2 types of beef jerky salad

Top row, from left: beef jerky soaked in lime juice, fresh basil leaves and julienned carrots. Bottom row, from left: spaghetti squash, green papaya

Green papaya was thinly julienned and soaked in water mixed with lime juice to avoid discoloration. Spaghetti squash was cut crosswise and boiled for ~20 minutes. The spaghetti strands were easily removed with a fork. I tried not to overcook the squash to preserve the crunchiness of the strands.

Dressing for salad: kecap manis, hoisin sauce, fish sauce, lime juice, sugar to taste. The dressing for this salad should be black and pretty viscous (hence the use of kecap manis and hoisin sauce instead of soy sauce, which has no viscosity). Like all Vietnamese gỏi, the dressing should be a little sour, a little sweet and a little salty.

Roughly chop basil leaves and mix them with green papaya (or spaghetti squash), beef jerky and carrot. Mix well with dressing.

Green papaya salad

green papaya salad with beef jerky

Spaghetti squash salad

spaghetti squash salad with beef jerky

Spaghetti squash salad was a lot crunchier than green papaya salad, which was nice. The squash was sweeter and soaked up more dressing than green papaya. The only thing I didn’t like about the squash salad was that the squash lost its golden color and became brown once the dressing was mixed in. I personally liked the squash version of the salad more (also because spaghetti squash came already julienned while it took some time to cut up enough green papaya). 2 friends who tasted those 2 salads were split on which one they prefer.

Substituting spaghetti squash when the recipe calls for julienned green papaya is actually a trick devised by early Vietnamese refugees who had to make do without Vietnamese ingredients. Like the canned anchovies mam nem, the squash substitution revealed new facets and possibilities in the traditional recipe and so established itself as a relevant and viable variant even when green papaya became readily available wherever enough Vietnamese-Americans congregate. We’re excited to uncover more of these immigrant chic recipes as they represent a very organic fusion cuisine and we hope to discover on our own new possibilities in Vietnamese cooking using ingredients that were not available to our forebears.


Mắm Nêm (anchovy sauce) from Canned Anchovies

Our kitchen and household gadgets, our experimentations in the kitchen are our expressions of a DIY ethos we have the luxury to enjoy thanks to the hard work and sacrifices of our parents. We improvise because we can, Vietnamese immigrants of our parents’ generation improvised because they had to in order to eke out some measure of comfort in strange new lands.

For all the material richesse and political security provided by life in these United States (or Canada, Europe or Australia, wherever Vietnamese boat people ended up), that ultimate source of comfort, one’s mother’s flavor, is denied to the first wave of refugees. They would consider themselves exceedingly lucky if they were relocated to a major city, with ethnic grocery stores that carried soy sauce or rarer yet, nước mắm (fish sauce). If, like Bird, their favorite comfort food is bò nhúng dấm (beef hot pot with vinegar) which requires mắm nêm (anchovy sauce*) then they’re completely out of luck. Yet under these conditions, some ingenious soul invented a new way to make authentic tasting mắm nêm with ingredients one can find in any grocery store in the American heartland.

Bò nhúng dấm (beef hot pot with vinegar)

To make immigrant chic mắm nêm you’ll need canned anchovies (cá cơm), diced pineapple and chopped garlic. Flat anchovies in olive oil are best. First saute 2 cloves of chopped garlic in a little bit of olive oil from the anchovy can. Then add the anchovies and stir. After a minute or two add the pineapple, about equal volume to the anchovies. There is some protease (or something) in the pineapple that disintegrates the anchovies such that after another minute of stirring, you’re left with a rich brown sauce with pineapple bits in them. Add water to desired consistency, add sugar and salt to taste. That’s it!

Compared to traditional mắm nêm, the flavor is earthier and  more complex. It’s fishier but not as pungent as traditional mắm nêm. I actually prefer the new way, Bird prefers the old preparation. Preferences are similarly split when we tested the different sauces with our friends and family. Pretty good for an improvised kludge.

Bird adds thin slices of cucumber to her mắm nêm for crunchiness. To make the cucumber slices: wash cucumber, leave the skin on, quarter cucumber lengthwise, cut out cucumber seed, leaving only the white part and the skin, then slice the cucumber into thin slices. Thin slices of cucumber are sprinkled with salt. After an hour or so, the cucumber is washed with water and squeezed dry. Add cucumber to mắm nêm just before serving.

* Both mắm nêm and nước mắm are made from anchovies. The difference in their manufacture can be compared to the processes to make ketchup and tabasco sauce. Mắm nêm is ground anchovy meal fermented and preserved with salt; nước mắm is the nectar extracted from anchovies with salt, the solid portion of the fish being left behind.