By Erin Froehlich — One of many Food blogs on SmartLivingNetwork.com
Okay. I’ll admit it - my fridge door requires Tetris-like strategy to arrange, my family hardly ever sits down for dinner without at least two, and often three, different accompaniments to choose from, and I actually keep an “emergency” bottle of sriracha and soy sauce in my car at all times. Little jars and glass bottles with exotic sounding names lure me in the aisles of my favorite grocery store. Maybe I’ll only use them once, and there’s a chance I won’t like them at all, but for me, the possibility of something new and wonderful is worth the risk. I am, what some might call, a condiment addict.
While I fully appreciate unadorned foods and ingredients – a sun-ripened tomato, a slice of really good cheese, fresh oven-baked bread - the ability to custom tailor a meal to my current tastes or to sample a variety of flavor combinations is too much to resist. Luckily though, as I recently found, I’m not crazy! Or, at the very least, I’m not alone. Seriously. Jump on Chowhound. People like me could probably start our own sauce/dip/marinade religion. Just a quick preliminary search revealed:
Extreme? Okay. Maybe a little. But the more I’ve read and spoken with others, the clearer it seems that condiment obsession is the rule, not the exception among people who love food – which actually, when you really think about it, makes perfect sense. Take proteins which are typically viewed as main event on a plate.
Despite small differences due to species or terroir, whether you’re in the US, Asia, or Africa, your chicken is going to taste pretty much the same until the local spices, sauces, and condiments are added. Thai food is spicy; Korean food, funky; French food, rich; Southern food, sweet…. More so than the meat or carbs that get so much of our attention, our preferred blend of flavors are what really sets us apart and gives each cuisine and each chef their own identity. As chef and author of the New American Table, Marcus Samuelsson writes, condiments “reflect who we are more than any other food.”
The reason I bring all this up is because I’ve been thinking about sriacha’s recent rise to fame. As I’ve written before, sriracha used to be this underground thing nobody but chefs and foodies knew about. But last year, Huy Fong Food’s recorded $60 million in sriracha sales and outsold Bloomsberg’s number 11 best selling US condiments of 2010, Gray Poupon. That’s just two years after the list that didn’t include it was released. Today, sriracha is as essential to the American refrigerator as our favorite Dijon mustard and more important than any other hot sauce on the market, several of our favorite salsa brands, and significantly more than any type of relish. (If you correlate sales with importance.)
But how does that happen? Why do tastes change? Which other sauces, dips, and dressings are in the same spot sriracha was just 5 or so years ago and which underground foodie favorites are destined become the new American condiments basics?
While it’s impossible to be sure, with Heinz sales falling year after year, it’s clear that consumers are hungry for something new - something with a range of uses, a practical container, wide-spread availability, a reasonable price, and of course, a great flavor. The following, pulled from my own fridge and collective agreement among the Chowhound foodies, meet all this criteria. If you’re a recent sriracha convert, and you’re ready to fall in love with a condiment again, run out and buy them now!
Flavor Profile: Spicy Sweet Roasted Chilies, Slight Vinegar Tang and Salty
Origins: Southeast Asian
Use It: Eggs, Wraps, Sandwiches, Stir-Fry
Buy It: Sambal Oelek
If you’ve been following me, you might remember sambal oelek from the list of “new sriracha” contenders. At the time, I was deeply skeptical and maybe even a little defensive of the idea, but since then, I must admit, it’s become a favorite condiment and a must-have staple in my house. This said, sambal is not sriracha. Sriracha’s got its own smooth consistency and fermented thing going. Sure sambal oelek is also spicy and based around red chilies - in fact, it’s another Huy Fong Foods product – but the flavor is of freshly sweet-roasted chilies (think roasted red peppers), not the funky, meaty sundried chilies of sriracha. The consistency is also a little chunkier – along the lines of relish. There’s no real reason to choose one over the other. They’ve each got their own delicious benefits.
Flavor Profile: Tangy Ginger, Sweet Carrots, Salty Soy
Use It: Salads, Marinades, Stir Fry, Rice
Buy It: Makoto Ginger Dressing
I’ll never forget the first time I went to my favorite little Japanese place near work. From the outside, it looked like any other of the hundreds of little mediocre Asian take-out place in Grand Rapids, but I walked inside and suddenly it was a whole other story. Warm, intimate, small, but classy, a tatami room is available at the front of the place for no extra charge, they offer you warm towels before you begin your meal, the wait staff is friendly and Asian, not teen or middle-aged anglo. Since that time, it’s become one of my favorite places to eat – a range of great sushi and sashimi, amazing bento box meals, but actually, one of the things I most looked forward to is just the house-made ginger dressing they offer on their complimentary side salad! If I were at home, I’d seriously lick the bowl clean every time I got it. It’s one of the first things I mention when I tell people about the place.
I'm hooked on the stuff, but until recently, I was left to pine until the next time I ate out. No more! I use Makota Ginger Dressing on my salad, in my stir fry, as a marinade, or as topping for simple bowl of rice. I can finally lick the bowl without judgment in the comfort of my own home.
Flavor Profile: Sweet Grape and Tangy Vinegar
Use It: Fresh Fruit, Cheese, Sandwiches, Pasta, Pizza, Dessert
Buy It: Monari Federzoni Balsamic Glaze
My first experiences with balsamic reduction happened, like most people’s, in the context of bruschetta and caprese. “Chocolate syrup on tomatoes??!” shortly followed by “Holy-crap-YUM!” Balsamic reduction is, of course, besides appearance, nothing like chocolate. It’s balsamic vinegar that’s been boiled until so much water evaporates that it becomes a sauce, and actually, it’s actually really simple to make your own. However, in normal life and in all honesty, waiting for balsamic vinegar to reduce down to sauce and cool before applying the condiment to a dish can be restrictively time consuming. Enter the ready-made wonder that is store bought balsamic reduction. Thanks to its convenience, I’ve been having a lot of fun finding new, creative ways to enjoy the it. For one - my daughter’s all-time favorite pasta dish of tubetini, peas, and small cubes of mozzarella, tossed with an olive oil, garlic, sea salt mix and topped liberally with balsamic. We also use it in sandwiches, on veggies, and in deserts - it’s awesome with strawberries. Anywhere a sweet, tangy flavor is appreciated, balsamic reduction works wonders!
Flavor Profile: Sweet Tomato, Paprika, Curry, Cloves – Similar to BBQ
Use It: Seafood, Meat, Wrap, Sandwiches, Fried Foods
Buy It: Hela Curry Sauce or Hela Curry Ketchup
This one is the most recent of my purchases on this list. Being a huge No Reservations fan, I remembered curry ketchup from the Berlin episode and had been eyeing it in the grocery store for quite some time. However, I couldn’t really imagine what such a thing would taste like, and I was little afraid. Ketchup with turmeric mixed in? Sounded kind of odd, like it might be thick, or dry-tasting and off-putting. I have to admit, the unattractive bottle probably didn’t help instill confidence either. But finally, since I was in the mood to try something new, and my heritage happens to be predominantly German, I decided to give it a try. It was nothing like I had expected. Quite sweet, syrupy in consistency, and complex with spices - it reminded me of a cross between barbeque and ketchup! I love it on sandwiches and it’s perfect with shrimp and fish. There’s nothing to be scared of here! I highly recommend it.
Flavor Profile: Salty, Smokey, Sweet
Origins: Southwestern US
Use It: Meat, Beans, Veggies, Stir Fry
Buy It: Stubb’s Hickory Liquid Smoke
To be fair, I’m an outdoorsy type, so I may be biased by my appreciation of a good bonfire and the yummy smoke smell it leaves in my clothes and hair. However, I have this theory that pretty much anything will taste better cooked over wood. As a psychology enthusiast as well, I can’t help but wonder if the thousands of years we spent eating food cooked this way may have engrained the taste for smoke right down to our DNA. Either way, possible bias and genetic predispositions aside, I think we all know smoke is tasty. The only issue - the fire itself. Building a fire takes time and not everyone can do it on their property. Lucky for us, there’s liquid smoke. While nothing can really perfectly replicate the taste of wood smoke, liquid smoke is a good substitute in a pinch. If you’re having trouble imagining the effect, think a meaty Worcestershire/soy sauce cross and you’re just about there. Mmm… campfire in a bottle.
Flavor Profile: Fishy, Salty, Umami
Origins: Primarily Thought Of As Asian
Use It: Marinades, Sauces, Dressings, Pasta, Cruciferous Veggies
Buy It: Taste of Thai Fish Sauce
Okay. I know you’re scared, but hear me out on this one. While fish sauce on its own is pretty pungent, you don’t need much to enhance a dish. A little bit ups the complexity and hits that soul-satisfying umami flavor mark. Fish sauce also happens to be one the principal condiments used in the Thai food that’s become so popular recently, and besides that, has a history tracing all the way back to Ancient Greece and Rome. In an NPR interview Italian archaeologist Claudio Giardino explained "According [to] the Roman writers, a good bottle of garum [Roman fish sauce]could cost something like $500 of today… But you can also have garum for slaves that is extremely cheap. So, it is exactly like wine. After the fish sauce is made, it was then turned into compound sauces — with honey, with wine, with vinegar, with other herbs, with oil.” While it’s already essential to eastern cooking, perhaps, it’s finally time for its return to the west? Today, it’s an American foodie secret, but as more people get brave and give it a try, I’m sure they’ll be eager to spread the word. This stuff is good.
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