“Em ơi, can I have more of this?” I ask our waiter as I point to the mixture of ingredients in a small ceramic bowl. The umami mashup, muối tiêu chanh, (pronounced "muu-ew tee-ew chahn") is an addictive homemade blend of salt, pepper, and fresh lime juice (some serve it with fresh chili, too) that brings a tangy burst to any food, and it's quickly become my favorite condiment here in Vietnam.
“It's a super easy Viet dipping sauce that anyone can make and use,” says Andrea Nguyen, author of Vietnamese Food Any Day. Each ingredient is typically kept separate in the serving bowl, so you can combine and add to suit every bite.
The DIY seasoning is uber popular in Vietnam: It's eaten throughout the entire country, from the fishing villages of Phú Quốc to the hill tribe communities of Sa Pa. “It’s a poor man dipping condiment going as far back as the late 70s and 80s," says Trần thanh Đức, chef and owner of Mango Group in Hoi An, Vietnam. "And according to the legend of the Phú Quốc pepper, it’s originally from that island. Some people cannot afford fish sauce as a dipping sauce, so they start to use muối tiêu chanh.”
An incredibly versatile dish, it can be eaten with almost any protein. “It's great with simply seasoned foods like grilled or steamed seafood, poached chicken, and grilled vegetables (hello summer squash!)," Nguyen says. "But it's also fab for brightening up spiced dishes like Viet-Cajun seafood boils. Muối tiêu chanh has a ton of uses."
As for making it at home, place two parts salt and one part pepper into a small bowl with a half-wedge of fresh lime. Combine the ingredients based on your flavor preferences and dip. If you want to spice things up, add fresh chili.
“I prefer to use kosher salt over my usual fine sea salt because it's easier to fine-tune the flavor," Nguyen says. "As for the pepper, black or white pepper works, but the delicate zing of white pepper is fab. Make sure to use freshly or recently ground pepper or else it will be meh. And of course, use fresh lime juice!”