The dipping sauces of Southeast Asia

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.

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.

Curiously or not, the dipping sauce habit is true across Southeast Asia. There’s the Vietnamese nuoc mam pha. Click here to learn how to make Indonesian / Malaysian sambal belacan and satay peanut sauce, Cambodian spicy sweet and sour sauce and the ginger-scallion sauce that go with Hainanese chicken.

Updated from a post first published three years ago.