Condiments are the spice of life, and every food culture has its own particular favorites.
Many of these—Mexican salsa verde, Indian mango chutney, Korean chili paste (aka, gochujang)—have found a place in American kitchens. But others are still hovering in the wings, awaiting their big mealtime breakthrough.
These (as yet) lesser-known condiments from throughout the world are a few of my favorites.
1. Ajvar (pronounced “EE-vaar”)
This mash of sweet roasted red peppers, earthy roasted eggplant, garlic, and varying amounts of spicy chilies is eaten throughout the Balkan countries. It can be served as a dip, eaten with meats or fish, tossed with pasta, or simply smeared on sandwiches. In Astoria and other New York neighborhoods with large Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian communities, mass-produced ajvars are easy to find in any grocery store—or try making it at home.
There are many different ways to make Venezuela’s creamier, tangier cousin to Mexican guacamole. The simplest version blends avocado with ample onion, garlic, and cilantro, as well as mild chilies, oil, and vinegar. In Venezuela guasacaca is eaten with meats—like a relish. But if you manage to procure some from a Venezuelan restaurant here in New York (my go-to is Arepas Café in Astoria), you can’t go wrong smearing this addictive sauce on pretty much anything.
3. HP Sauce
This condiment is ubiquitous in Britain—much like ketchup in American diners. Brits eat this mildly spicy, tangy-sweet sauce (a combination of tomatoes, dates, tamarind extract, and spices) with meaty, savory dishes. But HP Sauce is especially excellent at breakfast, where it adds a great kick to eggs, beans, and other bland, carby foods (e.g., the components of a typical British “fry-up”). Look for it in the international aisle of any New York grocery store.
4. Matouk’s West Indian “Hot Sauce”
This sauce is both legitimately hot and distinctly tangy, owing to the inclusion of small chunks of unripe papaya, mustard, and pickled Scotch bonnet peppers. It’s especially satisfying when paired with carby, fried snacks (samosas, meet your match!). But it also can be used to add flavor and heat to any mild sauce or dish, in the simmering stages. This import from Trinidad and Tobago is typically stocked in the city’s Indian, Caribbean, and African grocery stores.
5. Mustard oil
A staple in Bengali and Bangladeshi cooking, mustard oil imparts a pungent, wasabi-like flavor to vegetable and fish dishes. Or, as one chaat vendor in Jackson Heights demonstrates, uncooked mustard oil adds a potent, “sinus clearing” kick to South Asian salty snacks. It’s also great tossed with roasted soy beans and raw ginger in my favorite Nepali snack, musya palu, at Woodside Cafe. You can pick up a bottle in any South Asian grocery store in the city. Don’t be deterred by the “for external use only” stickers (which are the result of a minor cultural misunderstanding) or its location—typically with the shampoo and hair oil.
Koreans pair this spicy, mildly sweet, salty-funky sauce with meats (or, for vegetarians, plain rice) that are wrapped in a refreshing lettuce leaf and eaten. You can buy it at HY markets throughout the New York area. Or round up some fermented bean paste, chili paste, scallion, garlic, sesame oil, and honey and try making it at home.
This varying blend of spices (usually thyme, oregano, and/or marjoram mixed with nutty toasted sesame seeds and tart sumac, cumin, coriander, or fennel) is popular throughout the Middle East. It’s used to season everything from cooked meats and vegetables to mild cheeses (e.g., labneh or feta) and salads. My recommendation: If you’re baking bread, sprinkle some za’atar on top before you pop it in the oven. Look for it in Middle Eastern and Israeli grocery stores throughout the city.