Magic Sauce Recipe

Every once in a while, I develop a fixation on a particular sauce or condiment that makes everything taste more interesting.

I’ve had a pretty intense tahini sauce phase, which I haven’t quite recovered from, and a ginger and scallion sauce phase as well, both of which have left lasting marks on my repertoire.

But my current favorite is a sauce I now think of as my magic sauce. It’s a super simple combination of sesame oil, lime juice, and fish sauce that you add to your dish — any dish! — just before serving, and gives it a most rewarding depth of flavor.

The inspiration first came from a dish of cold, roasted cauliflower that I had in early May at Le Mary Celeste, a great little bar in the Haut Marais that serves shellfish and fabulous small plates cooked by Canadian-Chinese chef Haan Palcu-Chang.

Cauliflower at Mary Celeste

It was served in a soup plate with roasted hazelnuts and fresh cilantro, and the dressing that pooled at the bottom reminded me of the typical dressing for bun bo, the Vietnamese noodle salad that Parisians love love love. And like most things I’ve tasted at Mary Celeste, where the menu changes daily, it was stop-you-in-your-tracks good.

It is with that idea in mind that I made up the formula for my sauce a few days later. Bun bo dressing, or nuoc cham, is typically a runny dressing made with fish sauce and lime juice, sugar, garlic, and chili, but I chose to make something more akin to a vinaigrette, using just the fish sauce and lime juice, and adding sesame oil.

I first served it over roasted cauliflower, but have since enjoyed it over all kinds of sautéed vegetables as well as steamed fish, and it is astonishingly good in a vegetable stir-fry with a little ground beef and lemongrass. It is the kind of sauce that instantly raises the flavor bar by a few notches, and I am so glad I have it on my team now.

Depending on my mood and time resources, I sometimes add peanut butter to make it creamier (this version is particularly good over sautéed zucchini), and some chili sauce and garlic to make it even more complex, but the basic trinity of sesame oil, lime juice, and fish sauce is really all you need in a pinch.

What’s your magic sauce, and what do you use it with?

Roasted Cauliflower

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Magic Sauce Recipe

Prep Time: 2 minutes

Total Time: 2 minutes

Serves 2 to 3. Can be scaled up or down as needed.

Magic Sauce Recipe


  • 2 tablespoons sesame oil
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice (lemon juice may be substituted, but lime is better)
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce, a.k.a. nuoc mam or nam pla in its respective Vietnamese and Thai incarnations (look for it at Asian markets)
  • Optional additions:
  • 2 tablespoons all-natural smooth peanut butter
  • chili sauce, to taste
  • one clove garlic, finely minced or pressed


  1. In a small bowl, combine all the ingredients, whisking to emulsify.
  2. Drizzle just before serving over raw or cooked vegetables, fish or shellfish, or meat.


Because fish sauce is fairly salty, make sure you go easy on the salt content of the dish you put it on.
  • paul

    this is perfect! we just came back from a vietnam vacation and have a lot of fish sauce that we brought back. and I have some roasted cauliflower I just made at home!

    • Synchronicity! Will you report back when you try it?

  • Mine is from Japanese Farm Food — brown miso and toasted sesame seeds mashed into a paste. You can eat it as is on raw veggies, or thin it with water or rice vinegar and pour it over vegetables. It’s also the basis for her Salt-Massaged Cucumbers, which is one of the best things ever. My magic sauce of the moment.

    • That sounds so good! Do you use a mortar and pestle to create the paste? And thanks for turning me on to that book, I hadn’t seen it.

  • Annabel

    Haven’t yet tried fish sauce; is it anything like Worcestershire sauce, which I love and add to almost all meat-based casseroles? Also scrambled eggs, but it makes them non-vegetarian, as I assume your fish sauce does, too.

    Meanwhile I have been using a lot of hummus in sauces lately. And home-made hummus is even nicer if you use toasted sesame oil instead of olive! But for steamed veg, you really can’t go wrong with melted butter, or perhaps a beurre montée made with lemon juice. Or a really good hollandaise.

    • It is more or less up the same alley since both have anchovy in them, but still quite different. I hope you try it! And I’m making a note of the sesame oil idea in hummus. How lovely!

  • Cléo

    Mine actually starts just like yours! I add a Sriracha-like hot sauce (i.e. garlic and hot are my two goals), and fresh grated ginger. The ginger I may omit (if I am in a terrible rush), but that’s very rare. With sauteed sliced cabbage and an egg, you also have on my favorite fast lunch!

    • Ginger is a great idea, I’ll try that, thanks! And I can see how fabulous it would be with cabbage.

  • Rose/Deere Driver

    OK. I am taking notes for my Paris trip. I will have to go back and see a few more ideas for places to go to eat and then check the maps.

  • My sister who is a chef, always has fish sauce in her refrigerator and frequently leaves a small jar of it in mine after paying us a visit. I never understood her connection to it, your post clears up some of that mystery. Well done!

  • Read this this morning and had it on roasted broccoli tonight. SO delicious. Thank you!!!

    • So happy to hear it, thanks for reporting back, Lisa!

  • What type of fish sauce do you use? I’m forever scarred by a recipe that required a few tablespoons of the stuff and made the whole house smell AWFUL! Ever since then, I never put more than a scant teaspoon in whatever I’m making. I know I’m probably missing out on flavor but… I’M SO SCARED OF THE TABLESPOONS!!

    • The one I use is a Vietnamese one (nuoc mam) that’s just anchovy extract, salt, and water. What I have found is that the smell is super pungent when you use it while cooking (the flavor is less assertive — it’s mostly cooking smell). If you add it without heating, and in combination with fat and acid as it’s done here, it is much milder. Let me know if you brave your trauma and try it again! :)

    • An excellent brand available in the US is Red Boat. Try asian stores and Whole Foods. I have no financial interest in Red Boat.

  • Caroline

    Oh that’s easy: my favorite magic sauce is the fantastically delicious and addictive Thai nam prik pao! It goes well with everything and just a tad bit of it turns a simple stir fry into a plate licking experience! I often add some to my Asian soups too. I make it myself (very easy, takes all of 10min and it keeps a really long time) because it’s much better than the store-bought stuff.
    I will try your magic sauce..I know I will love it because I adore all the ingredients that go in it!

    • Would you share your nam prik pao recipe? Thank you!

      • Caroline

        Sure, this is the one I use though I modify it a bit for my taste. I haven’t tried Chez Pims’s version but it looks really good too. I used shrimp paste at the beginning but it’s a bit too strong for us so now I just add a bit more fish sauce instead.

  • Mary Celeste is my favorite place to take tourists-who-arent-really-tourists types as well as coworkers-who-have-never-tried-interesting-food-before types. I was about to write about how it’s pretty expensive, when I realized that I was going to say that we paid ~130 eur for drinks for four people plus ~5 small plates, and I realized that for Paris that’s actually a pretty great deal, considering the quality of the food.

    Also do you mean toasted sesame oil, or just ‘regular’ sesame oil?

    • I agree, the bill can rise up pretty quickly (once, we accidentally spent almost that much on just the two of us!), but the food itself isn’t very expensive — it’s the drinks that add up.

      I considered specifying the type of sesame oil, but the truth is both would work. The one I currently have on hand is an untoasted extra virgin sesame oil I got from the organic store, so it’s pretty mild, but it would be great with toasted too.

  • limegimlet

    Oh, I can’t wait to try this. My go-to “sauce” (if you can call it that is more Mexican inspired: lime juice, olive oil and red pepper flakes. Works a treat on roasted sweet potatoes, corn, avocado, tomatoes etc…But now I’m trying to more or less follow a paleo diet (which can be a real challenge here in Paris), I need more quick easy sauces to liven up an even wider array of vegetables. Thank you!

    • That sounds wonderful too, thanks for sharing! And good luck with the paleo diet… with all the potatoes served at Paris restaurants, I can see how challenging it would be.

  • Wow, will definitely try your magic sauce and will post If I love it like you do!!!

  • Oh yum, and nice and simple! My favourite similarish magic sauce is soy sauce, lime juice, and honey (or some sort of syrup). Also love to add peanut butter!

    • I am definitely trying that as well, thanks!

  • I just tried this and I couldn`t help it to comment right away, it is amazingly good, my dish is complete with your magic sauce, thanks for sharing this recipe

    • Lovely to hear, Martha, thank you!

  • Funny, variations of this sauce (and bun) have also become my new obsession. Looking forward to trying it with peanut butter.

  • Shantel

    I served this on a salad of tomato, white onion, and avocado, with a dash of crushed aleppo chilies. Delicious, thank you!

    • If there are any leftovers, are you open to shipping them to Paris? :)

  • I just tried this on sauteed zucchini and chickpeas over quinoa (I added a dash of tabasco to the sauce) – magic sauce indeed!

    • That sounds really good, Rachel, glad you enjoyed it!

  • Lily

    Funny, I am going through this phase with this exact Vietnamese/Thai magic sauce on everything, during the hot summer months. I also put a bit of sugar or honey in it too, I find that makes a big difference because of the sweet-salty-umami combo. Not sure what’s traditionally done in Vietnam/Thailand, but restaurant fare I’ve had seems to have a sweet element to this magic sauce as well.

    • You’re right, a touch of sweetness works really well too, and indeed it is often part of the Vietnamese/Thai balance of flavor.

  • Hi. My wife and I have used something similar in stir fry with glass noodles but I’ve never thought about adding it to cold roasted vegetables. We’re definitely going to try that!


  • Nice one, I should try. :)

  • What a nice post! Always I like,I have liked your post.I will follow your directions and I will try to make this recipe.
    Thanks for your great post.

  • MC

    Wonderful sauce/dressing. Made a double batch, with peanut butter and a little garlic. How long will it keep in sealed container in fridge please?

    • Well, all of the ingredients are shelf-stable, so I think you can safely keep it for a couple of weeks in the fridge.

  • Pat

    My magic sauce is an Indonesian chili paste called sambel terasi. It’s basically shrimp paste (terasi), garlic, shallots, chilies, and sugar. My mum whips it up in huge batches and everyone loves it! You can add it to or eat it with basically anything: fried turmeric chicken, fried rice, soups. It makes everything taste better.

    • That sounds fantastic, Pat, thanks!

  • Kristy Marzocca

    Mine is a cilantro and lime juice with garlic, honey, white wine vinegar to die for mixed in a cabbage slaw used on almost anything. It is especially good with fish tacos!

    • Making a note of this. Thanks!

  • maya m wilson

    thank you for sharing

  • I love adding sauce to things! It just makes a dish so much more exciting ;) I also love hummus and it’s great combined with lentils!

  • Sylvia

    super yummy sauce! i made it with the measurements of sesame oil/lime juice/fish sauce listed, added some garlic powder + fresh cracked pepper. poured it as a dressing over freshly grilled ribeye steak (entrecôte). folks @ july 4th potluck enjoyed the dressing over rice. :)

  • lyn

    My magic sauces, for what it’s worth:

    1) yogurt, salt, pepper, coriander, cumin, and some type of heat (gochujang korean, jalapeno, serrano, or siracha)

    For hot pot/general use, I have the following:

    2) (Japanese inspired) soy sauce, mirin, ginger, grated carrot, and honey and some canola (or other bland oil)\

    It tastes like japanese salad dressing too.

    to change up my nuoc mam, sometimes I’ll use the juice of a tangerine – a nice, different taste!

    Also, a coconut-milk based sauce which I love!

    3) nut butter, dash of sugar, coconut milk, ginger, garlic, soy, rice vinegar, lime juice and chili (red pepper flakes, or fresh jalapeno, serrano, etc.)

    I think I read this on a “paleo” site but it’s pretty good!

    I’ll sometimes make a hotpot-kind of like pot-au-feu for vietnamese people, where you have tons of different vegetables/greens/meats (like thinly sliced pork belly or beef or chicken, different kinds of mushrooms, any type of vegetables you want – I’ll do carrots, zucchini, and tomatoes)

    The broth is boiling and you dip in whatever you want to cook (guarding carefully so no one steals it) and when it’s done cooking, you add a little dab of one of the sauces to your bowl

    coconut-milk based, or japanese soy one – only one, or perhaps both- (and I’ll leave the sweeteners out) and each person puts their cooked pieces in their bowl. they are a great complement and you can do as you wish, to your tastes.

    Furthermore, at the end, the broth is full of flavor and delicious, and you can add rice, noodles, or just drink the broth plain.

    • Thank you for sharing all those formulas — they look great!
      And thanks for the bun bo correction. I had forgotten that we had (weirdly!) switched the name around in France.
      Love the Mother’s Day gift idea, too! Not sure it would fly with my mother, but it’s worth a try. ^^

  • Lyn

    two more things:

    1) the rest of the world call it bun bo, not bo bun. bun means noodle, and bo means beef. Not sure why they changed the name around at the restaurant in paris (perhaps french grammar?) but when you go to vietnam, you’ll want to say bun bo (though the intonations are difficult, so perhaps best to point when when you see it)

    2) a great fish sauce available in the US is red boat. it’s the highest quality level, and has no added sugar or salt. just fish and water, and my vietnamese mother loves it. in 28 years, i’ve never gotten her a mother’s day present that she liked except for red boat fish sauce.

  • I’ve just tried it as I found fish sauce in the supermarket the other day. I used a toasted sesame oil (I don’t think the supermarket sells any other kind!) and added peanut butter. I wasn’t sure at first whether we would like it, so told my husband only to take a little – as I did – but we both liked it and took more! That will go into the repertoire – thank you!

    • I’m so pleased, Annabel! What did you use it on?

  • Maureen

    Just used your magic sauce on soba noodles with oven-roasted carrot matchsticks and haricots verts from the farmer’s market, with flaked smoked salmon and sesame seeds on top. Yum!

    My magic sauce is variation on this theme – peanut butter, lime juice, fish sauce, grated ginger, the tiniest bit of crushed garlic, and a dash of sriracha. Sometimes I add a little sprinkle of sugar, but not so much that it’s noticeable sweet. Also yum!

    • Using this on soba noodles is such a great idea! That meal must have been something.

  • Claudia

    Just made your Magic Sauce. Yum. It is Delicious even on Fritos. Making the roasted Cauliflower with Hazelnuts. Having to use flay leaf parsley instead of cilantro. The persons house I’m taking it to hates Cilantro.
    The chili sauce you refer to is that like catsup or a chili paste that is Hot. I’ve really enjoyed your website.

    • Happy to hear you enjoy the sauce, Claudia! The chili sauce I refer to is any hot sauce — it could be Tabasco sauce for instance.

  • Channon Doughty

    My “magic sauce” is very similar to yours, with fish sauce, tamarind paste, garlic, ginger, sesame oil, soy sauce and either mirin, rice vinegar or lime juice. this is my go to stir fry concoction. I sometimes add chili paste or just put Sriracha Chili sauceon the table, depending on my audience and mood.
    I love the simplicity of yours and our new house has a lime tree, so I will be putting your pared down version to work more often!!
    Love this blog. Thanks so much for creating it.

    • I have a jar of tamarind paste sitting unused in a drawer, so I’ll give your a try soon! Can you give us an idea of the respective proportions for the different ingredients, or do you just eyeball?

      And your very own lime tree? Sigh. Lucky you!

      • Channon Doughty

        We do love the lime tree! I don’t measure, but I would say that you use 1-4 Tbs of each, with there being more of the umami flavors (soy sauce, mirin or shao xing Chinese “sherry”) and less of the more pungent flavors like aromatics, fish sauce, vinegar, tamarind paste. and I use the lime juice in a quantity somewhere between the two spectrums.
        I apologize for taking so long to answer!

  • dpanch_89

    Have you tried “Henderson’s Relish”? It’s similar to worcestershire sauce, but its vegetarian.

  • THE Frugal Foodie

    I like the idea for the magic sauce and I would balance out the umami of the sesame oil, tang of the lime and salt of the fish sauce with 1 Tablespoon of Honey.

    I make something similar which I call my “3-2-1 Dressing” =
    3 Tablespoon Olive Oil, 2 Tablespoon Seasoned Rice Vinegar, 1 Tablespoon Honey

  • Terramom

    Oh, yummy, I just found this magic sauce recipe and I have the ingredients for it! Can’t wait to try it on something. I just love your blog, Clothilde,

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