When it comes to Vietnamese cooking, Nước Mắm (fish sauce) and Nước Màu (caramel sauce) are absolute must-haves!

Vietnamese caramel sauce

Nước Mắm adds that umami kick for seasoning (like in Air fryer Fish Sauce Chicken Wings) and dipping (like in Nước Chấm), while Nước Màu brings out a beautiful caramel hue in countless Vietnamese dishes.

Sure, you can pick up Nước Màu at many Asian markets, but it’s even simpler to whip up at home with just two ingredients: sugar and water.

🙋‍♀️ What is Vietnamese Caramel Sauce?

Typically, when we think of caramel sauce, our minds conjure up images of sweet, nutty, buttery goodness with a hint of bitterness, the popular sauce for many desserts and drinks (my absolute favorite: Caramel Milk Tea!).

But in Vietnamese cuisine , caramel sauce is primarily used in savory dishes, particularly in Món Kho (braised dishes). It imparts a gorgeous caramel hue and deep, rich flavors to the dish.

Thit Kho Tau (Northern-style Vietnamese Caramelized Pork & Eggs)
Northern-style Braised Pork & Eggs (Thịt Kho Tàu)

Up north, they call the sauce Nước Hàng, while down south, it’s known as Nước Màu.

In Vietnam, the real deal Nước Màu boasts a distinct color and we call it “màu cánh gián” or “cockroach wings’ color.” Yes, it might not sound appealing, but it’s certainly an accurate description 😂 !!

Sometimes, you’ll notice labels saying Nước Màu Dừa (Coconut Caramel Sauce) on store-bought Nước Màu. This means that they’ve swapped out water for coconut water, a favorite twist in the Mekong Delta Region in Southern Vietnam (Miền Tây).

Vietnamese caramel sauce

In Vietnam, they even experiment with pineapple juice for Nước Màu. Besides, some regions may add fish sauce or cooking oil or use palm sugar/brown sugar instead of granulated sugar.

I personally find these ingredients non-essential, as Nước Màu is primarily for color rather than flavor enhancement. Just water and sugar can do the job beautifully.

❤️ Mom’s Easy Nước Màu

My mom frequently prepares a generous batch of Nước Màu and stores it in a jar at room temperature, where it lasts for about months. You’ve got options—either prep a large batch ahead or make just enough whenever you’re cooking.

Vietnamese caramel sauce

Like I mentioned, all you really need for Vietnamese Caramel Sauce is sugar and water. Some folks toss in a splash of lime/lemon juice or vinegar to prevent sugar crystallization, but honestly, I usually skip that step.

For 1 cup granulated sugar (about 160g), you’ll want to mix in 2 tbsp + 1/4 cup of water (adding it into the sugar in two portions).

📝 Instructions

The method of making Nước Màu is quite similar to caramel sauce used in pudding desserts like Vietnamese Flan, Filipino Leche Flan, Japanese Purin… However, the caramel hue of Nước Màu tends to be darker and more brownish.

  • Step 1: Begin by combining 1 cup sugar with 2 tbsp water in a stainless steel pot (using stainless steel makes it easier to monitor the color). Once you’ve mastered caramel sauce making, you might even skip this step.
  • Step 2: Turn the heat to medium-high and patiently wait for the mixture to start bubbling, which typically takes about 5-7 minutes. Keep a close eye on it.
  • Step 3: As soon as the mixture begins to turn golden-orange or amber, signaling the start of caramelization, gently swirl the pot to distribute the syrup evenly. Avoid stirring to prevent sugar crystallization.
  • Step 4: Once the syrup darkens to a rich brown color, remove it from the heat and carefully add 1/4 cup of water. Be careful as it may splash vigorously at this point.
  • Step 5: Stir the sauce until everything is well combined, then simmer over medium-low heat for another one or two minutes to thicken it slightly.
  • Step 6: Allow the sauce to cool for a bit before transferring it to a jar for storage and future use. The caramel sauce will thicken further as it cools down completely.
Cook the mixture of sugar and water in a sauce pan..
Step 2
Cook caramel sauce in a sauce pan.
Step 3
Cook caramel sauce in a sauce pan.
Step 4
Vietnamese caramel sauce in a sauce pan.
Step 5

🥣 How to use Nước Màu

In Vietnamese cuisine, Nước Màu is primarily used to enhance the color of “braised dishes” and “caramelized dishes,” which are known as “Món Kho”, like:

  • Thịt Kho Trứng – Braised Pork & Eggs: my recipe for Northern Thịt Kho Trứng is not popular as the Southern version but it’s super tasty.
  • Cá Kho (or Cá Kho Tộ) – (Claypot) Caramelized Catfish: my go-to dish for steamed Jasmine rice.
  • Sườn Ram (or Sườn Kho) – Caramelized Pork Ribs: great with steamed sticky rice.
  • Gà Kho Gừng – Ginger Caramelized Chicken: a classic dish in every Vietnamese household.

Moreover, Nước Màu is widely used in Vietnamese BBQ like:

Bánh Xèo Miền Trung (Central-Style Bánh Xèo): in Nha Trang, my hometown, caramel sauce is often added to the rice batter for color. This distinguishes it from the more commonly known yellowish Bánh Xèo in the South, which is more popular internationally.

Banh Xeo Nha Trang
Central-style Bánh Xèo

🌠 Substitutes

  • Dark Soy Sauce: Dark soy sauce, sweet soy sauce, and Indonesian kecap manis can all serve as substitutes for Nước Màu, but keep in mind that they are not soy-free.
  • Molasses: Although molasses can work well as an alternative, it may not provide the dish with the same glossy finish as Nước Màu. In my recipe for Thịt Kho Tiêu (pepper caramelized pork), I opted for molasses instead of caramel sauce.
Delicious "thit kho tieu": Caramelized pork simmered in a rich sauce infused with black pepper and served with steamed rice. The tender and flavorful pork is garnished with scallions, creating a visually enticing and mouthwatering dish
Thịt Kho Tiêu (Pepper Caramelized Pork)

🌟 Helpful Tips

  • You can use brown sugar, black sugar, palm sugar, or even rock sugar to prepare Nước Màu.
  • You could replace the water with coconut water, pineapple juice, or even Coke, Sprite, and 7-UP.
  • Some tips to prevent sugar crystallization:
    • Avoid stirring the mixture while cooking; instead, gently swirl the pot to distribute the syrup evenly.
    • Add a bit of vinegar or lime juice towards the end; this can help reduce sugar crystallization.
    • If your sugar crystallizes, simply add some water to dilute the sugar, and you can start cooking it again.

🥣 Try more staple sauces in the Asian kitchen!!

  • Mỡ Hành (Vietnamese Scallion Oil) – With just 3 ingredients, it’s a staple in many Southern Dishes like Bún Chả Giò (rice noodle salad with egg rolls) and Cơm Tấm (broken rice dish).
  • Sốt Sa Tế (Vietnamese Lemongrass Chili Oil) – This spicy and aromatic all-purpose sauce elevates your Vietnamese stir-fries, BBQ, and even soups like Bún Bò Huế.
  • Nam Jim Jaew (น้ำจิ้มแจ่ว Thai BBQ Dipping Sauce) – The ultimate BBQ dipping sauce from Thailand, it’s a must-have for Gai Yang (Thai Chicken BBQ) and Moo Ping (Thai Grilled Pork Skewers).
  • Toyomansi (Filipino Calamansi Soy Sauce) – This perfect blend of tangy, zesty, and salty flavors is the ultimate companion for siomai and all sorts of dumplings and potstickers.

Thanks a bunch for giving my recipe a shot! If you enjoyed it, I’d truly appreciate a 5-star rating or a comment to let me know your thoughts. And don’t forget to stay in touch with me on InstagramFacebookPinterest, and YouTube 🥰.

Vietnamese caramel sauce

Vietnamese Caramel Sauce – Nước Màu (2 ingredients)

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Nước Màu lends a gorgeous caramel hue to numerous Vietnamese dishes. While you can find it in many Asian markets, it's even easier to make at home with just two ingredients: sugar and water.
5 from 1 vote
Cook Time 10 minutes
Course Condiments
Cuisine Vietnamese

Ingredients
  

  • 1 cup sugar (160g)
  • 2 tbsp water
  • ¼ cup water (60ml)

Instructions
 

  • Combine sugar with 2 tbsp water in a stainless steel pot (using stainless steel makes it easier to monitor the color).
  • Set the heat to medium-high and patiently wait for the mixture to start bubbling, typically around 5-7 minutes. Keep a close watch on it.
  • Once the mixture begins to turn golden-orange or amber, indicating caramelization has begun, gently swirl the pot to evenly distribute the syrup. Avoid stirring to prevent sugar crystallization.
  • When the syrup reaches a rich brown color, remove it from the heat and carefully add 1/4 cup of water (and optionally, lime juice or vinegar). Be cautious as it may splash violently.
  • Stir the sauce until well combined, then simmer over medium-low heat for another one or two minutes to slightly thicken it.
  • Allow the sauce to cool for a bit before transferring it to a jar for storage. As it cools completely, the caramel sauce will thicken further.

Notes

  • You can use palm sugar, brown sugar, black sugar, or even rock sugar to make Nước Màu.
  • You could substitute water with coconut water, pineapple juice, or even Coke, Sprite, and 7-UP.
  • Here are some tips to avoid sugar crystallization:
    • Don’t stir the mixture while cooking; instead, gently swirl the pot to distribute the syrup evenly.
    • Towards the end, add a splash of vinegar or lime juice.
    • If your sugar does crystallize, just add some water to dissolve the sugar, and you can continue cooking it.
       
       
       
       
       
       
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