News flash: The mayo, ketchup and mustard triumvirate isn’t enough any more. These days, American recipes are calling for fish sauce and oyster sauce, piri piri and sambal oelek.
It’s a long-overdue correction: The modern pantry should reflect all the great nations that make up our melting pot. Because you only have so much space in the fridge door and pantry for condiments, here’s our breakdown of what we like to have on hand whenever possible. We define “condiment” much as The Food Lover’s Companion does: “A savory, piquant, spicy or salty accompaniment to food, such as a relish, sauce, mixture of spices and so on.” Read on to learn what you’re missing.
Pickles and Relishes
Layering dill pickles on to sandwiches for a bracing bite of acidity is always a good move, but you could also spike mayo with capers, or break out a top-notch kimchi or chutney. (Here’s an amazing kimchi kit!) We have an epic Chicago-style hot dog “bomb sauce” if you’re a relish person, or you can make your own. (Pro tip: It’s all about the cider vinegar!) And keep in mind that you don’t need a hot dog or a sandwich to enjoy pickled flavors; there is almost always pickled daikon or cucumbers in a Korean banchan set.
Sandwiches are where you can really mix up your condiments. Get a good mayonnaise, or make your own. Spike it with grated garlic or minced basil, then slather that on a turkey sandwich with local tomatoes. Revel in how good that tastes; grilled eggplant loves a basil mayo, too. Aioli is the French version of mayonnaise, typically spiked with garlic, and served alongside fries or crudités. Tartar sauce is essentially mayonnaise with pickles, capers, scallions, lemon and chives spun into it. It’s a dream on fried fish of almost any stripe. Then there’s mustard, which those who love it say must be on anything worth eating. You can buy mustard seed or mustard oil for cooking or finishing dishes, respectively, but the most popular version is the prepared one. It varies wildly around the world, from French Dijon, silky and smooth, to satisfyingly textured English wholegrain, to spicy Chinese mustards. This condiment doesn’t play by national lines; you can generally find any version anywhere, and thank goodness.
So you have one sticky bottle of soy sauce. That’s great, and very necessary as a salt, to serve with dumplings, but many cooks would argue that fish sauce, boasting an umami boom of anchovies, is almost more necessary. Black vinegar is enormously helpful if you often make dumplings. Have you played around with oyster sauce, which comprises oysters cooked down spun with soy sauce? It’s unctuous and incredible, especially as a finishing note in hot soups. Teriyaki sauce is a hybrid generally used as a marinade, but sweet hoisin—typically a mix of soybeans, garlic, chile and spice— is making more frequent cameos. It’s marvelous with fresh spring rolls. And if soy sauce is your favorite, consider tamari, a thicker version made with no wheat, to mix it up. It’s impossible to mention soy without also mentioning wasabi, made from Japanese horseradish. Green, sharp and pungent, it comes in powdered and paste forms.
Nearly every nation has its hot sauces. Along with kimchi, gochujang—a spicy, slightly sweet hot-pepper paste—is enormously popular in Korea. In America, we have zillions of hot sauces, and we have a darn easy starter kit for you DIY types. There’s Tabasco and Sriracha, Harissa and Sambal Oelek, Piri Piri and Salsa, Chili Garlic and the beloved Chili Crisp. When you’re serving something, in addition to asking whether it needs acid or salt, ask if it needs heat. (The answer will often surprise you!) And remember that although you can slather a piece of meat in BBQ sauce right when it comes off the grill, if there’s a hot chile in that sauce, be cautious if you’re using it as a marinade. Otherwise you’ll want to have a big cup of milk, not beer, with your dinner.
New Englanders panic when they run out of maple syrup, and they only keep the dark, unctuous stuff on hand (or they’ve tapped their trees!) Southerners tend to keep honey or molasses handy. (Can we talk about how many boutique honeys there are now?!) Sticky molasses is the byproduct of refining sugar. It might be the key ingredient in your favorite BBQ sauce. And, of course, there are jams and mostardas. The latter is fruit simmered in sweet syrup and mingled with mustard seed; it’s just the thing to pair with cheese.
You have your workhorse bottle of vegetable oil, and another of olive. Those get the job done as the basis of baked goods, sauces, pastas and whatnot. But sometimes you have a giant plate of pasta and it needs… something. Mac and cheese? Consider a drizzle of truffle oil, and perfume the room. (Same goes for pizza!) A salad? Sea salt and walnut oil. Popcorn? Avocado oil, please. And try to remember to keep one good bottle of olive oil, kept away from light and heat, handy at all times. It can save a platter of ho-hum beans, finish a swirl of hummus, and lace through leftover frittata. We have our favorites, of course.