A Guide to Southeast Asian Dipping Sauces

Dipping sauces in the context of condiments served on the side are found all over Asia. They're served on the side of a cooked dish and the cooked meat, seafood or vegetable is either dipped in it or tiny spoonfuls of the mixture are poured over the cooked food or rice, or both. The closest English translation would be a “dipping sauce” except that they really aren't sauces but, essentially, condiments. Flavor enhancers (which makes them akin to a seasoning) that are desirable but not exactly necessary. ​

A dipping sauce can come straight out of a bottle as in the case of the Vietnamese nuoc cham and the ubiquitous soy sauce in Japan, or it can be a blend of spices and seasonings. In Thailand, they have the nam prik (or nahm phrik) which can be prepared in so many ways. Sambal, a chili-based sauce, is found in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Sri Lanka. Chutney, wet or dry, coarse or fine, and its hundreds if not thousands of variations is found in various South Asian cuisines. Tentsuyu and ponzu are probably the most well-known among Japanese dipping sauces. Then, there’s the Korean ssamjang. In Chinese cooking, there are so many dipping sauces from soy sauce-based to ginger-based to fruit-based. Sawsawan, that’s what they're called in the Philippines, and the term refers to a wide array of mixtures that may or may not include citrus juice and chilies.

Here are instructions for making four of the most well-known dipping sauces in Southeast Asian cooking.

The instructions for making nuoc mam pha, the Vietnamese sweet, sour, salty, spicy dipping sauce, has already been published as a separate recipe.

  • 01 of 02

    Satay Peanut Sauce

    Satay Peanut Sauce
    Satay Peanut Sauce. Ian Garlick / StockFood Creative / Getty Images

    Satay peanut sauce consists of two parts: the peanut mixture and the chili mixture. If you've been wondering some satay peanut sauces have a lighter color than others, it has to do with the ratio between the two two mixtures. Light colored satay peanut sauce has fewer chilies. 

    Start with a cup of unsalted roasted peanuts. Grind to a paste (coarse or super smooth, that's up to you). If you want to dispense with the grinding, substitute chunky unsweetened peanut butter. 

    Make the spice paste by grinding together four bird's eye chilies, four cloves of garlic, two shallots and a knob of peeled ginger. Use a mortar and pestle, a blender or a food processor, that's your call.

    Heat two tablespoonfuls of oil in a wok or frying pan. Saute the spice paste until solids separate from the oil. Add the peanut paste (or peanut butter). Pour in about half a cup of water. Stir to blend. Season with kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), fish sauce, palm sugar and tamarind paste (available in Asian stores). Use more or less of the seasonings to get the balance that you like. Stir and simmer for a minute.

  • 02 of 02

    Hainanese Chicken Ginger-Scallion Sauce

    Ginger-Scallion Sauce
    Ginger-Scallion Sauce. © Connie Veneracion

    The condiment that makes Hainanese chicken so wonderful is so simple to prepare. Measure equal amounts of grated ginger (with the juice!) and finely chopped scallions. Pour in enough peanut oil to make a thin paste. Season with salt.