Nước màu (sometimes referred to as “caramel sauce”) is a traditional Vietnamese condiment and perhaps one of the most widely used components of Vietnamese cuisine. It is made by cooking cane sugar until it forms an amber-colored liquid that thickens over time. Its flavor profile combines the sweetness of the sugar with hints of bitterness, which gives it its unique place among Vietnamese dishes.
Any number of dishes such as thịt kho, grilled meats, banh mi, clay pot, dumplings, or sautés are given extra dimension when sprinkled with Vietnamese caramel sauce. Even after all these years, it continues to be a popular choice in national and international settings alike – a testament to its incredible versatility and ability to elevate any dish.
What does it taste like?
Nước màu has a deep, complex flavor profile. It is mostly sweet, with a hint of bitterness that adds depth and character to the taste. The sweetness comes from the cane sugar used in its preparation, and it is further enhanced by the caramelization process that occurs while cooking. Its unique flavor begins with a mild, light sweetness and gradually transforms into a rich, syrupy flavor with notes of molasses. The complexity of this condiment makes it ideal for complementing both savory and sweet dishes.
In addition to its culinary uses, nước màu can also be used as a dipping sauce or glaze. It is perfect for adding an extra depth of flavor to fried foods, grilled meats, vegetables, or any number of other dishes. Its sweetness is also great for balancing out the flavors in spicy dishes such as pho or curries.
Where to buy it?
You can buy it at your local Asian grocery store or online. If you have 10 minutes, you can make your own at home by following the easy steps below.
Sugar and Water. Only two ingredients to make this easy Vietnamese caramel sauce recipe!
What type of sugar should I use?
White granulated sugar is the most common choice but there are other options that you can use to achieve a different flavor profile. Dark brown cane sugar adds an extra layer of complexity and a mild molasses-like flavor. Coconut sugar has a subtle nutty taste that works especially well with savory dishes. Lastly, palm sugar offers an earthy flavor profile with hints of smokiness for a unique twist.
How to make a simple caramel sauce (nước màu) recipe at home
Note: The caramelization process happens quickly. Read the directions first before starting. Do not leave the stove unattended and have the water pre-measured before starting.
Step 1: Turn the stovetop to medium heat, and sprinkle sugar evenly over the surface of a small heavy-bottomed saucepan. Let it sit for 1-2 minutes without stirring.
Step 2: Once the sugar starts to melt, use a whisk or rubber spatula to stir constantly for 4-5 minutes (times will vary depending on your stovetop). You will see the sugar turning from clear to champagne yellow to a dark amber color.
Step 3: As soon as it starts smoking, immediately turn off the heat, pour in the water, and stir until the sugar is dissolved.
Step 4: Pour the caramel sauce into a small glass jar and store it.
3 traditional dishes that use caramel sauce
Nước màu, or Vietnamese caramel cooking sauce, is an essential ingredient in many traditional dishes. Three of the most popular dishes that use nước màu are thịt kho tau, sweet-and-sour pork braised in a coconut caramel sauce; com gà kho gừng, a fragrant and savory dish featuring chicken simmered with shrimp paste and caramel sauce; and chả cá, which is fish marinated in turmeric and nước màu for a delicious dish with an unforgettable flavor. All three dishes are staples of Vietnamese cuisine, providing a perfect combination of sweet, salty, sour, and savory flavors.
5 modern recipes that incorporate caramel sauce (Nước Màu)
If you’re looking to expand your culinary repertoire, it’s definitely worth taking the time to learn how to make this traditional condiment - and, even better, use it for modern recipes!
From baked salmon with caramel sauce glaze to Chinese-style noodles with a special kick, there are plenty of delicious options out there. Spicy chicken tacos with caramel sauce salsa, crunchy fried brussels sprouts seasoned with caramel sauce, and a flavorful coconut-caramel sauce sorbet are just some of the contemporary dishes you can create using this versatile sauce.
So why not get creative in the kitchen and experiment with this delicious nước màu (caramel sauce) recipe?
Once it has cooled, store it in a jar or container with a lid. It will last up to 2-3 months in the fridge.
Vietnamese Caramel Sauce (Nuoc Mau)
- 4 tablespoons white granulated sugar
- ⅓ cup water
- (Note: The caramelization process happens quickly. Read the direction first before starting. Do not leave the stove unattended and have the water pre-measured before starting). Turn the stovetop to medium heat, and sprinkle sugar evenly over the surface of a small saucepan. Let it sit for 1-2 minutes without stirring.
- Once the sugar starts to melt, use a whisk or rubber spatula to stir constantly for 4-5 minutes (times will vary depending on your stovetop). You will see the sugar turning from clear to champagne yellow to a dark amber color.
- As soon as it starts smoking, immediately turn off the heat, pour in the water, and stir until the sugar is dissolved.
- Once it has cooled down, store it in a jar with a lid in the fridge for up to 3 months.