Ever since I spent a grad school semester in Vietnam, I’ve had a particular odeur. That’s because I routinely keep a supply of homemade chile sauce in the fridge. It’s not authentically Vietnamese per se, but it brings together all the necessary condiments of a good Vietnamese meal. It’s very simple and a snap to make: lots and lots and lots of garlic, lots and lots of chiles, a few limes, a few drizzles of rice vinegar and a healthy pour from the fish sauce bottle. Nothing else. Toss it all into a blender; or mince the chiles and garlic separately, then mix in a bowl with remaining ingredients.
There is no right or wrong with this chile sauce. That’s the beauty: It’s all about you. You decide how much heat and how much garlic you can handle.
The stuff lasts for weeks in the fridge, and it gets better every day. You can’t beat this combination of fresh chiles and lime with the salty bite of fish sauce. Even fish-sauce skeptics will learn to love The Chile Sauce For You. You’ll be pouring it over rice and popcorn, and eating it with noodles for breakfast. Just don’t breathe on your co-workers.
There is one rule in making The Chile Sauce For You: Pay attention to your fish sauce. This dish requires not just any old fish sauce, but the very best. There is no substitute for Phu Quoc (MILD DIGRESSION: Phu Quoc is an island at the southern tip of Cambodia, which was once part of Cambodia, and anybody can tell by looking at a map that it SHOULD be part of Cambodia, but today it’s part of Vietnam, and it is one of the many, many reasons that many, many Cambodians believe their next-door neighbors are trying to swallow their country alive. Phu Quoc also happens to be the birthplace of the world’s best fish sauce). Ironically, it’s easier for you folks in America to find Phu Quoc fish sauce at your local Asian market than it is for us to find it in Chiang Mai. In Chiang Mai, we find lots of mediocre Thai fish sauce, which is OK in small quantities but it has the tendency to make me nauseous after a while. A good fish sauce will never make you nauseous.
When I made the latest batch of chile sauce this week, I used about six heads of garlic and a heaping bamboo tray of hot chiles. If you want a milder version, toss in a few red bell peppers.
Below, you’ll find the recipe I gave my class when I taught Southeast Asian cooking in Oregon. It will give you an idea of the proportions involved. Just remember: This is The Chile Sauce for You. Make it as you see fit. If you’re unaccustomed to cooking recipe-free, this is good practice in the art of pinching — a pinch of this, a pinch of that, a lick of the spoon. In Asia, contracts are generally viewed as guidelines. They’re not set in stone. It’s the same with recipes, which are shaped to the cook’s best interests.
1 cup minced hot red chile
1/2 cup minced garlic
1/4 cup squeezed lime juice and rice vinegar
1 tablespoon high-quality fish sauce
Combine ingredients in a bowl, mix well. Store refrigerated in jar and use as needed.
**BONUS: If you really don’t like someone at work, eat a heaping tablespoon or three of this at night. Your innards may erupt like a volcano the next morning — don’t worry. It’s good for the colon. Then go cozy up to your nemesis and BREATHE. You’ll feel great.