Vietnamese Peanut Sauce

Fish sauce is one of my great culinary discoveries. Not cooking with it, mind you, but the only way truly to appreciate fish sauce: spilled on the floor. You see, don’t cry over spilt milk is nice and all, but you probably should cry over spilt fish sauce.

I was in cooking school and a tray containing several half-closed bottles tipped out of its slot in the cart and crashed to the ground, splattering the stuff all over the white tiled floor. It was like when the chem. teacher magically altered the color of flame: an instant reek arose from that shiny floor like a fishy nuclear cloud.

In fact, fish sauce, like wine, is chemistry in a bottle: a product of fermentation, in this case fish rather than grapes. But the idea is the same: take a natural product and let it rot until it’s really tasty. Of course, spoiled grape juice sounds better than spoiled fish, but without fish sauce there’d be no Vietnamese food, and I’d rather live in a world without wine than a world without Vietnamese fare.

Yet fish sauce, by itself in, say, a cup, is pretty gross. You need to mix it with other stuff, which is how we come to the other wonder of this cuisine: the marriage of these seemingly yucky products. It can act like salt, seasoning rice and other items, but it’s magical when whisked with lime juice, a little sugar, shallots, and herbs; squirted in to finish a curry; or sizzled at the end of a simple stir fry.

In this dish, it’s stir fried with ground pork and two other items which aren’t great on their own: tamarind water and fermented soy bean paste. Add a little water and you have a slightly chunky sauce to be used as a dip for vegetables, noodles, salads, etc. On paper it reads like the recipe for a nasty fraternity drink: scoop a bunch of stuff into a cup and drink. But this funky marriage works beautifully. Just don’t spill it on the floor.

(NOTE: tamarind water is essentially the strained liquid from tamarind pulp mixed with water. For the offbeat ingredients, go online. Our Thai market is Bangkok Center Grocery-they have a website. The sauce goes well served as a dipping sauce for vegetables. You can pour it hot over a salad of cilantro, scallions, and lettuce with or without beef or chicken.)

Vietnamese Peanut Sauce (from Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet)

¼ cup roasted peanuts
2 teaspoons peanut oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons ground pork
3 tablespoons fermented soybean paste (dao jiao in Thai) (NOTE)
2 tablespoons tamarind water (see NOTE)
1 cup water
1 ½ teaspoons sugar
1 or two bird chiles, minced
squeeze lime juice

  1. Grind peanuts to a coarse powder and reserve.
  2. Heat a wok or skillet with the oil over high heat. Add garlic, cook 15 seconds till lightly colored then add pork. Break it up, and when changed color, add tamarind water and soybean paste, stir.
  3. Add ½ cup water, most of the peanuts, sugar and chilies, and stir. Add up to ½ cup or more of the water. It shouldn’t be a thick liquid, not watery.
  4. Use as a dipping sauce for vegetables, to pour over salads or stir fries.

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