Expand your condiment repertoire

San Antonio Express-NewsDecember 25, 2013 


Sambal oelek, bottled by Huy Fong Foods, is an Indonesian condiment that becomes a secret ingredient to a wide variety of recipes when you feel the need to kick things up a notch in the kitchen.


There’s little doubt that, as Americans, we have become more food adventurous over the past couple of decades. No longer can we be described – at least not literally – as a “white bread” society. Foods such as sushi, tapas, beignets and calamari are now available and enjoyed in even the smallest burgs.

Still, some – especially children – hesitate. New foods and unfamiliar flavors can be scary, so it’s easy to fall back on good ol’ American standbys such as hot dogs, hamburgers, tacos and pizza (so long as you’re willing to stretch the definition of “American”).

But at a recent “Latin Flavors, American Kitchens” conference at the Culinary Institute of America, San Antonio, Melissa Abbott suggested an alternative.

Think condiments.

“Condiments are a low-risk way for people to try new ethnic foods,” said Abbott, senior director of The Hartman Group, a Bellevue, Wash., company that researches and consults on consumer behavior, particularly as it relates to food. Condiments from the four corners of the globe can spice up such basics as eggs, cheese, veggies, even peanut butter.

I asked Abbott to recommend condiments that can serve as “gateway drugs” to a more expansive enjoyment of ethnic delights. Here’s what she suggested:

(Most of these should be available in any specialty supermarket, ethnic market or online.)

Quince paste (aka membrillo)

What it is: Made from the quince (the ancient mashup of apple and pear that, legend has it, Eve used to tempt Adam), quince paste is dark, reddish-orange, tart and not too sweet and has a consistency thick enough to slice.

How to enjoy it: Quince paste can be spread on bread or used to accompany roast meats. I went the traditional route of pairing it with sheep’s milk manchego cheese from Spain on a cracker.

Verdict: The salty sweetness of the quince paste and cheese filled my mouth with deliciousness. I ate way too many before dinner.

Piri-piri sauce

What it is: A peppery hot sauce with vinegary undertones originally made from the piri-piri pepper by way of Portugal and Africa. (The sauce I used contained jalapeños and habaneros.)

How to enjoy it: Use it in place of barbecue or any other sauce when grilling to give a spicy kick to beef, poultry, pork and seafood.

Verdict: I probably used far too much while grilling chicken breasts and should have saved some for a final spritz before serving. As a result the chicken had only a faint, yet pleasant, heat.

Kewpie mayonnaise

What it is: The Hellmann’s of Japan comes in a plastic bottle inside a plastic bag with a creepy kewpie doll on the label.

How to enjoy it: Bring on the Kewpie wherever you’d use mayonnaise: on sandwiches, in potato salad and, for those of European leanings, to dip pomme frites, or french fries.

Verdict: Kewpie mayonnaise has a richer, yolkier taste than the American stuff, which may be due to an ingredient list that includes the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate, or MSG.

Sambal oelek

What it is: A pepper-based paste from Southeast Asia made from pounded or crushed chiles. You’ll recognize it from those small plastic condiment jars that grace the table at many Asian restaurants.

How to enjoy it: Add it – as you do salsa – to any food that could use a little heat, including veggies, pizza and eggs. It’s also an essential ingredient for many spicy Asian dishes, such as those with peanut sauce.

Verdict: I tried an online suggestion to substitute sambal oelek for the jelly in a PB&J and the result is pure, spicy yum! Like nothing you ever brought to school for lunch.

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