Spicy and tangy condiments from around the world
Most Americans are familiar with soy sauce, that staple of East Asian cooking. Some have become devotees of the Southeast Asian chile-and-garlic sauce known as sriracha, squirting it on burgers instead of ketchup. And fish sauce — another Southeast Asian import, originally introduced to Western palates in the form of Worcestershire sauce — is becoming more and more popular as a secret weapon, its funky bass notes underpinning steak marinades and salad dressings.
But our planet’s diverse cultures still feature many popular condiments that have yet to become American standards. Here are eight contenders for the next wave of saucy imports.
Colatura di Alici. Vietnamese fish sauce may be ubiquitous and inexpensive in the U.S., but gourmet cooks claim that its Italian counterpart, colatura, is worth every penny of its hefty price tag.
Colatura di Alici
Not surprisingly, this amber elixir extracted from fermented anchovies has a distinguished provenance — the ancient Romans used garum, colatura’s predecessor, to season all their food. To this day, colatura is produced on the Amalfi Coast using similar methods passed down from generation to generation.
Perhaps colatura’s magic is in its mellow taste, which brings out multidimensional flavor in every dish. Used sparingly, it adds oomph to southern Italian dishes such as spaghetti with clams and mussels. Just a teaspoon turns a simple mix of olive oil, garlic, lemon zest, and parsley into a lively pasta sauce. Or try roasting Brussels sprouts with colatura and chile flakes for a briny side dish with a hint of heat.
Kecap manis (sweet soy sauce). The doyenne of the Indonesian kitchen, this sweet, sticky, syrupy, molasses-like sauce is made from soybeans, wheat, and sugar.
Traditionally, kecap manis adds flavor and color to nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice); it’s also used to marinate chicken, and it’s brushed over grilled fish. Paired with sliced bird chiles in little dishes, kecap manis is a ubiquitous table condiment to accompany fish, chicken, or vegetables.
Kecap manis also makes for a delicious steak marinade or glaze, and will add a hint of sprightly sweetness to stews. And it makes a superlative marinade for baby back ribs when combined with chile paste and cola.
Banana ketchup. When tomatoes were scarce in the Philippines during World War II, a resourceful food technologist invented a ketchup stand-in using an abundant native fruit: bananas. Made from mashed bananas, sugar, vinegar, and spices, banana ketchup is sweeter than tomato-based ketchup and has a distinct, fruity flavor.
Store-bought specimens unfortunately contain artificial flavors and colors, resulting in a fake-tasting banana condiment that’s as bright red as lipstick. The homemade version, on the other hand, is the real reason why so many Filipinos love it.
Use this tasty condiment as you would tomato ketchup: dip your French fries in it, and douse it on everything from burgers and hot dogs to omelets. Oh, and don’t forget those lumpia!
Pomegranate molasses. Equal parts very sweet and very tart, pomegranate molasses has the consistency of maple syrup and a rich garnet hue. In Mediterranean cuisine, it’s used to glaze meats, to flavor kofta kebabs (ground-meat kebabs), and to thicken and sweeten stews, including the beloved Persian fesenjan (chicken stew with pomegranate sauce).
In your kitchen, it can be your secret weapon to augment vinaigrettes, sauces, and cocktails, and it’s delightful drizzled over cake! Pomegranate molasses also transforms your favorite barbecue sauce into a tasty sweet-and-savory glaze for grilled meats and vegetables.
Chinkiang vinegar (Chinese black vinegar). Milder than Western vinegars, with the sweet fragrance of rice, Chinkiang vinegar is made by fermenting high-quality glutinous rice. Its dark color emerges naturally from the scorched rice grains.
True Chinkiang vinegar is produced in Zhenjiang, Jiangsu Province, China. Imposters abound, but you can tell a good-quality product by its mellow, almost sweet and smoky flavor; it’s similar to balsamic vinegar, and makes a cheap substitute for the pricey Italian condiment.
Splash it into salad dressings, add a glug to barbecue sauces, or, if you’re a traditionalist, float shredded fresh ginger in a dish filled with the heady vinegar for a dumpling dipping sauce. You can also build a delicious sweet-tart braise using assorted meats and vegetables, Chinkiang vinegar, ginger, cinnamon, and star-anise pods.
Sriraja Panich. Hailing from Thailand, Sriraja Panich has more depth and complexity than its famous homegrown cousin, the Sriracha hot chile sauce made by the California-based Huy Fong Foods, Inc.
Sriraja Panich is sweeter, tangier and definitely more garlicky than the American-made version. It’s also less viscous, making it runnier and more pourable. In Thailand, it’s the dipping sauce of choice for seafood, but it’s just as tasty as a topping for burgers, in soups, and in marinades.
Gochujang (Korean red-pepper paste). If you love Korean food, you’re probably already a gochujang fan. The Koreans use this pungent paste in many dishes: as a marinade for barbecued meats, stirred into bibimbap and stews, and in dipping sauces or salad dressings.
Made from glutinous rice, red-pepper powder, koji (the same culture that transforms soybeans and other grains into miso), wheat flour, salt, and a sweetener like corn syrup, gojuchang isn’t just tongue-searing, but offers a well-rounded flavor palate of sweet, sour, spicy, and savory. Think bold miso meets Sriracha.
Mix it into mayo or ketchup, coat your buffalo wings with it, or stir it into fried rice or risotto.
Harissa. Tunisian cuisine isn’t all that well-known in the U.S., but harissa should help put it on the culinary map. An excellent shortcut for spicing up nearly any meal, harissa is basically a chile paste jazzed up with aromatics like garlic, coriander seed, caraway, and/or cumin. Vegetable or olive oil is then added to emulsify the mixture into a smooth, thick paste.
Tunisian cooks add a dollop of harissa to lamb stews or stir it into couscous. You can experiment with harissa as a sandwich spread, tossed with grain salads and roasted vegetables, or mixed into scrambled eggs to kick-start your day.
Pat Tanumihardja is a writer specializing in food, travel, and culture, based in the Washington, D.C. metro area. She is the author of The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook and keeps a blog by the same name.