World's Strangest Condiments
Banana sauce is just one of many condiments from around the world that is used in ways that may strike us as, well, strange. For others, like fermented bean curd from China, the way it’s used isn’t as surprising as, say, the way it tastes or smells. These small, slippery cubes of fermented tofu are so pungent that half of one can be enough to flavor a heaping bowl of rice or breakfast porridge. (It can also be described as umami, a Japanese word that refers to a fifth taste—outside of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter—and is often used to describe fermented or aged foods.)
China’s condiment of choice isn’t the only one with a strong flavor profile. There’s a spicy kick to many of the world’s most popular condiments, from India’s mango pickles to a habanero sauce made in Belize and available in “No Wimps Allowed” and “Beware” versions.
Of course, food has always been a direct way to gain insight into another culture. And tasting a destination’s quintessential condiment—whether its tkemali in the Eastern Europe country of Georgia or harissa in Tunisia—can only make that dining experience more flavorful. But that doesn’t mean you need to book a flight. It’s increasingly easy to try out new sauces and spreads in your own neighborhood. If some of these condiments don’t sound so bizarre to you, it may be thanks to your grocery store; many across the U.S. are dedicating more aisle space to jars, cans, tubes, and bottles from overseas.
Read on for a taste of these exotic condiments and, more important, explanations for how they’re used—so next time you’re abroad (or in a local ethnic restaurant), you won’t be caught putting banana sauce on roast pork.
And if you’ve sampled an unusual condiment, share your experience by posting a comment below.
Fermented Bean Curd, China
These silky, pungent cubes of fermented tofu are mixed very sparingly with rice or breakfast porridge. You can season an entire stir-fry dish with one or two of these soft cheese-like cubes.
Everything from fried chicken and grilled meat to potato dishes will taste tart, sweet, and spicy thanks to this thick sour plum sauce. Recipes vary, but it usually gets its array of flavors from a blend of garlic, coriander, dill, chili pepper, and salt.
This super-spicy paste of chiles, coriander, caraway, and garlic is now made in France, due to the large population of Tunisian immigrants. There are countless ways to incorporate it into a meal; a few favorites are to rub it on steak before grilling or mix it with lemon juice and olive oil (or even plain yogurt) and serve with pita.
Marie Sharp’s Habanero Pepper Sauce, Belize
A surprise ingredient in this Central American hot sauce: carrots. This particular variety leaves tongues burning—so one can only imagine what the "No Wimps Allowed" and "Beware" versions will do.
Uses for this tart yet smoky red-pepper-and-eggplant relish differ throughout the Balkans. In Serbia and Belgrade, it’s served with meze (cold appetizers), like hummus. Bosnians, meanwhile, use it with rostilj (grilled meat).
Banana Sauce, Philippines
Tangy and sugary, this ketchup-like sauce doesn’t taste anything like its namesake ingredient. Use it as a dip for lumpia (fried spring rolls filled with ground pork), or—even more popular with Filipinos—mix it with spaghetti and cut-up hot dogs.
Fish Sauce, Thailand
Known as nam pla in Thailand (and nuoc mam in Vietnam, where it’s also popular), this amber-colored liquid is made from three ingredients: fermented anchovies, salt, and water. The flavorful Southeast Asian staple is used much like salt to season—it’s also a marinade for seafood and meat, and a dipping sauce (when mixed with lime juice).
Mango Pickles, India
Despite the ingredients, there’s nothing sweet or juicy about this mango-based condiment. Rather, it’s salty and delivers a spicy kick. Locals eat it with yellow dal, khichdi (a lentil/rice dish), paratha (flatbread), and various curries.
HP Sauce, United Kingdom
Most of this vinegary brown sauce—whose name is short for “Houses of Parliament”—is actually produced in the Netherlands. Made with malt vinegar, molasses, and dates (among a few other ingredients), it’s been a go-to topper for bangers and mash since 1889.
Maha’oi Sauce, Hawaii
Best described as a spicy soy sauce, this is like salt and pepper in one convenient bottle. It complements seafood such as ahi tuna and wahoo, but can be used on almost anything. The brand’s owner even had a customer who used it on a soft Wisconsin cheese platter.