Bench the ballpark mustard, kick that ketchup to the curb and uplevel your kitchen game with ethnic-inspired additions that transform any dish from simple to spectacular. Bonus: they’re made with good-for-you ingredients like garlic, pomegranates, vegetables and chili peppers. Six saucy solutions to elevate your eats, tout suite:
1. Piri piri sauce. This Portuguese-South African hot sauce has all the fire you need, with an earthiness and complexity that will make you forget Sriracha ever happened. It starts with the African Birdseye pepper, a plenty-hot but not painful pepper on par with a mild habanero. The sauce generally blends piri piri peppers with vinegar, lemon, garlic and onions; some versions add bay leaves, basil, paprika, oregano and other herbs and spices. Traditional applications: as a marinade for grilled chicken, or in Bife Ana, a Portuguese steak sandwich layered with greens. Or sprinkle it on scrambled eggs, drizzle over rice and vegetables, add to ketchup for a fiery bite.
2. Black garlic paste. Used in Asian cuisine for thousands of years, black garlic is made by aging fresh garlic with a combination of heat and humidity. The process breaks down the compounds that give fresh garlic its unruly bite, transforming its sharp edges and yielding complexity and depth. The result: inky black, slight sticky cloves with a mellow garlic flavor and sweet undertones of raisins, molasses and balsamic vinegar. Black garlic is subtler than fresh garlic, so it can be used abundantly, without overwhelm (and it retains the healing benefits of its uncured counterpart). Combine it with a little fresh garlic for a more pronounced flavor. The paste—usually, just pureed cloves—is more convenient and easier to use; add it to balsamic vinaigrettes, mix with olive oil and spread on grilled bread, or stir into mayonnaise with minced chives. Or add minced whole cloves to potato soup, stir-fries or mac and cheese.
3. Ajvar. Pronounced EYE-var (the “j”) is silent, this roasted red pepper spread hails from the Balkans, where used as a condiment—much like our American ketchup. Tangy-sweet, versatile and complex, it’s subject to many interpretations; the traditional version is made from roga peppers—like our red bell peppers, but with a more pronounced flavor—charred until they’re soft then blended with roasted eggplant, olive oil, vinegar and garlic. Some recipes include roasted tomatoes, others add lemon, green peppers, cayenne pepper or fresh herbs. Serve it the traditional way, as a side condiment for grilled meat or a plate of sausage and bread. Other uses: spread on flatbread and top with feta cheese and black olives, serve it as a dip for crackers or chips, or stir it into yogurt for a flavorful sandwich spread.
4. Natto. This traditional Japanese condiment is made by boiling fresh soybeans then fermenting them with a specific strain of bacteria (Bacillus subtilis) that transforms the soybeans’ natural sugars and yields a dense, sticky spread with a pungent aroma and flavor. Natto has all the health benefits of soybeans, with a major bonus: the fermentation process creates probiotics that support gut health and immune function. With its stinky smell and stringy, slimy texture, natto is not for the faint of heart. But it’s also earthy, nutty, and the very definition of umami—that elusive, well-rounded flavor that, in Japanese, roughly means ” pleasant savory taste.” For more adventurous palates, try it the traditional way: sprinkled with soy sauce, mustard and scallions and served with steamed rice. Or mix it with ginger, garlic and tamari as a sauce, stir into miso soup or blend it with mustard and mayo. Add it after, not during, cooking, since heat destroys those super-healthy probiotics.
5. Sambal oelek. Native to Indonesia, this minimalist hot sauce made from raw, crushed red chilies has a fresh, bright flavor and medium heat—a tablespoon is about as spicy as a small jalapeno. “Sambal” is a generic term used to describe a category of condiments made from chili peppers—so, like many traditional condiments, it’s open to interpretation. Sambal oelek, the most basic and widely available, typically includes vinegar, salt and sometimes sugar. Sambal bajak is like sambal oelek, but without salt, and sambal assam, made with tamarind, has a tangy-sour flavor with sweet undertones. Other versions include onions, garlic, shallots, sugar, herbs, ginger, lime, even anchovies or durian fruit. Sambal oelek is better as an addition to cooking, rather than sprinkled on like Tabasco. Toss it with roasted vegetables, add it soups or blend into hummus with garlic and pureed roasted peppers.
6. Pomegranate molasses. Made from pomegranate juice cooked down (with or without sugar) until it’s reduced to a thick syrup with a deep garnet color and intense flavor and aroma. Though it’s called “molasses,” it’s not super-sweet; made the traditional way, without added sugar, it has a tangy, sweet-tart flavor that’s reminiscent of those childhood candies. And because it’s made from pomegranates, it’s a concentrated source of healing antioxidants. Pomegranate molasses is traditionally used in Lebanese and other Middle Eastern dishes like tagine, and makes a versatile base for marinades, glazes and dressings. Whisk it with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, toss with roasted eggplant cubes and feta cheese, or combine with sparkling water, hibiscus tea and a bit of honey for a bright, refreshing mocktail.