In America, hot dogs and ketchup go hand in hand. Not so in the Philippines. In this Southeast Asian country of 7,000-plus islands, the ballpark staple is commonly found cut up and mixed in with spaghetti, then tossed with something they call banana sauce. It’s sweet, it’s tangy—and it tastes nothing like bananas.
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.