How to make: The dipping sauces of Asia

Sawsawan, that’s what it’s called. It’s something served on the side of a cooked dish and the cooked meat, seafood or vegetable is either dipped in it or small spoonfuls of the mixture is poured over the cooked food or rice, or both. The closest English translation would be a “dipping sauce” except that it really isn’t a sauce but more of a condiment. A flavor enhancer (which makes it akin to a seasoning) that is desirable but not exactly necessary.

Dipping sauces in the context of condiments served on the side are found all over Asia. In Vietnamese cuisine, there’s the ubiquitous nuoc cham. 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.

In the Philippines, the sawsawan is usually a mixture that includes two or more of the following: patis (fish sauce), bagoong (native fish or shrimp paste), soy sauce, vinegar and kalamansi juice plus one or more minced or chopped spices like shallots, garlic, ginger and chilis.

The dipping sauces of Asia

Although there are no strict rules as to what sawsawan should go with specific dishes, there are traditional pairings like chicken tinola with patis and mashed chicken liver. Grilled pork or fish is often served with a mixture of vinegar, soy sauce, chopped shallots, garlic and chilis.

But the thing that really gets you about the sawsawan is that it is a personal thing. It’s not strange to simply mix your own. That’s why in restaurants, bottled seasonings are placed on the table and the diner can just create his own sawsawan. Like it saltier than sour? Use more patis or soy sauce than vinegar or kalamansi juice. Prefer a really hot sawsawan? Crush more chilis in the mixture.

Personally, I am not very fond of dipping sauces. If the food is already perfectly seasoned, I prefer not to ruin the experience with an overkill of seasonings. But for most Filipinos, having a sawsawan is a must. And I wonder if the sawsawan is really for flavor or to satisfy the almost automatic gesture of having something to dip the food in or something to douse the food with. Or, maybe, like many things we have simply come to accept as a matter of course, it’s just habit.

Below, recipes for some of the ubiquitous dipping sauces in Asia. I’ll just keep adding as I post recipes that call for a dipping sauce that’s not yet in the list.


Nuoc Cham (Vietnam)

2 finger chilis
half a head of garlic
1/4 c. of sugar
the juice of 1 lime (substitute lemon if lime is not available)
1 tbsp. of vinegar (I used cane vinegar)
3 tbsps. of patis (fish sauce)
1/2 c. of water
1/2 tsp. of salt

Cut off the stems of the chilis, slit them lengthwise and scrape off the seeds with a knife, a teaspoon or (this is the most effective) your thumb. Chop the chilis.

Crush the garlic and discard the skins. Place the garlic and chilis in a mortar, pound and grind to a paste. You can do it the modern way by just dumping the chilis and garlic in a food processor.

Mix the garlic-chili paste with the rest of the ingredients. I suggest you place them all in a jar with a screw-type cap. Just shake the jar until the sugar dissolves and you have your nuoc cham.


Tentsuyu (Japan)

1/2 c. of dashi stock (powdered dashi dissolved in water)
1/8 c. of mirin
1/8 c. of light soy sauce
1 tsp. of sugar
1 tsp. of grated ginger (optional but recommended)

Heat the mirin in a pan. Add the soy sauce and dashi and heat to boiling. Turn off the heat, stir in the sugar and ginger. Leave to steep until needed.


Ponzu (Japan)

4 c. of dashi
1/8 c. of light soy sauce
1/4 c. of mirin (a variety of Japanese cooking wine)
2 tbsps. of rice vinegar
2 tbsps. of citrus juice (I used kalamansi)

Place the dashi in a pot. Add the soy sauce. Pour in the rice vinegar, citrus juice and mirin. Boil everything together, uncovered, for about 20 minutes. Cool and strain.

Makes about 4 cups.


Chili ginger sauce (Malaysia)

3 to 4 bird’s eye chilis
a thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
1/8 c. of water
2 tbsps. of sugar (palm sugar is traditional)
2 tbsps. of lime juice (substitute lemon or kalamansi if lime is not available)
1 tsp. of salt
a dash of sesame seed oil

Process the chilis, garlic and ginger with the water to a paste (use a mortar and pestle, blender or food processor. Stir in the rest of the ingredients.


Soy-vinegar sauce (Philippines)

The dipping sauces of Asia

1 tbsp. of chopped shallots
1 tsp. of chopped garlic
1 tsp. of chopped ginger
1 bird’s eye chili, finely sliced
4 tbsps. of vinegar
4 tbsps. of soy sauce
1 tsp. of sugar

Stir everything together.

This sauce is good with crispy pata, lechon kawali and other grilled meat and seafood dishes.


Ginger-scallion sauce (China)

hainanese-chicken-rice

Goes with Hainanese chicken, soy chicken, dumplings and whole lot of other dishes.

3 heaping tbsps. of finely grated ginger
2 heaping tbsps. of finely grated garlic
4 heaping tbsps. of finely chopped onion leaves
4 to 6 tbsps. of peanut oil
a few drops of sesame seed oil (optional but recommended)
salt, to taste

Stir everything together and leave to infuse for 30 minutes to an hour.


Spicy vinegar dipping sauce (Philippines)

1/2 c. of cane vinegar
1 tbsp. of chopped scallions
2 cloves of crushed garlic
a few slices of ginger
1 to 2 bird’s eye chili, lightly pounded

Mix everything together and allow to steep until needed.

  • http://www.twitter.com/reginabeth Beatrize

    Can’t eat munggo (a common Friday viand) without pairing it with toyo and calamansi. … Maybe having a “sawsawan” is a cultural thing among us Asians.

    • http://casaveneracion.com/ Connie Veneracion

      That’s a unique pairing. :D

      • http://u8mypinkcookies.blogspot.com u8mypinkcookies

        for me, it’s tomato ketchup or spicy toyomansi :)

        • http://casaveneracion.com/ Connie Veneracion

          Oh my, I forgot about the omnipresent ketchup!

          • A

            Perhaps it’s a question of control… In a world where so much is dictated to you and you have to make lemonade from the most bitter lemons, control over small things like sauces offers a relief. Just my (pessimistic) two cents’ worth :p

          • http://casaveneracion.com/ Connie Veneracion

            I don’t call that pessimistic LOL

          • Ken_L

            Yes I was about to say just about any sawsawan is superior to the British habit of pouring tomato sauce over everything! Or plain vineger, if it’s soggy french fries.

          • http://casaveneracion.com/ Connie Veneracion

            I still can’t eat fish and chips with the vinegar poured over everything. LOL I prefer it on the side. :)

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    • Noel Q.

      Hi Ms. Connie… where do you buy your peanut oil? Been looking through Cash and Carry Supermarket and Pioneer Center but they don’t seem to be selling this… Thanks!

      • Connie

        At Our “Big” Little Store near Gilmore. It’s a Chinese specialty store. Also at Shuin, Taiwanese store along Araneta Avenue in QC.

        • Noel Q.

          Thanks so much! Will go to Gilmore today…

          • Connie

            It’s beside the building selling computers and accessories… :)

          • Noel Q.

            Was FINALLY able to buy peanut oil at The Big Little Store!

            Was looking for some peanut oil yesterday at Cash and Carry and there was this one solitary 2-liter bottle but it costs P710!!! It was way over my budget so I didn’t buy it. Finally my friend offered to bring me to Gilmore today and, thanks to your tip, was able to buy a 2-liter bottle for only P250!!!

            Thanks again!

          • Connie

            Great! :)

  • Audrey

    My Japanese grandmother use to steam cabbage when I was little and we would dip it in a sauce, have no clue what that sauce was and have been looking all over the internet. Would Tentsuyu or Ponzu work or do you think it might have been something totally different?

    • http://casaveneracion.com/ Connie Veneracion

      Audrey, I really wouldn’t know — I never tried your grandmother’s steamed cabbage. :)

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  • Ester

    Can you post a dipping sauce for cucumber please. Thank you.

  • Connie

    Ester, I don’t post upon request. I share what we eat. :)