I’m a native Chicagoan. And I have a terrible secret.
I put ketchup on my hot dog.
I know. I know. It’s not OK. But somehow, I grew up with a penchant for the most basic accessory to an all-American frank, rather than the far more socially acceptable yellow mustard, chopped onion, sweet pickle relish, tomatoes, hot peppers, pickle spear, and celery salt.
If you don’t live in Chicago, you may be asking, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a hot dog.” Well, it’s a BIG deal.
Fortunately, this one (albeit significant) character flaw is transcended by my love for the new and unusual in condiments, leaving me with a refrigerator full of a dozen different mustards and multiples of the following seven items at the ready. Taken from cultures all around the globe, here are the hottest prospects in sauces and spreads to be gracing our food today:
A long-time staple in North African and Middle Eastern restaurants, harissa is a Tunisian hot chili paste and most often includes a combination of peppers (roasted red, Baklouti, serrano, and other hot peppers), as well as garlic, coriander seed, saffron, and a vegetable oil to bind it. The texture can range from sauce to thick paste, and you’d find it at a gourmet grocer packaged in a jar or tube.
Often used as a marinade in meat or fish dishes (or to add spice to stews and cous cous), harissa has broken through to the American market, influencing flavors on a variety of dishes. You can find it in yogurt sauces and other Middle Eastern-influenced dishes, but also in new harissa-flavored mayonnaises and on chicken wings, satisfying that ever-growing need for the next spicy treat!
Practically considered a side dish among Indian diners, chutney isn’t so much a single condiment as a style of relish that can be made from many, many different ingredients. Mango chutney is, of course, one of the most popular options, combining the sweetness of the fruit with vinegar, lime juice, onion, tamarind, and other spices to add a bit of heat. Its popularity — particularly “Major Grey’s Chutney” — comes from its widespread association with curries on the British isle post-colonization of India.
However, nearly any kind of fruit or vegetable can form the base of a chutney: onion, mint, tamarind, tomato — you name it. And not all of them are universally hot to the palate. In fact, Branston Pickle, a very popular chutney in Britain, is made from a variety of diced vegetables (carrots, onions, cauliflower) that are pickled in vinegar, tomato, apple, sugar, and spices. It’s brown, sticky sauce-like consistency spreads on bread, and is often paired with English Cheddar cheese as part of what’s known in many pubs as the Ploughman’s Lunch.
Fermented condiments have become more and more popular in the past year, and gojuchang is the leader of that pack. A pungent, but spicy, paste made from red chili, rice powder, soybeans, and salt, this savory condiment has made its way from 18th century Korea into the kitchens of many of America’s premier chefs.
Like other fermented condiments, gojuchang takes time and consistent low heat to evolve its rich flavors, eventually developing a dark, reddish color. It frequently rides along bi bim bop, a Korean mixed rice dish, but of late has also been featured on Korean sticky ribs, dipping sauces, and items as American as spicy grilled cheese sandwiches.
If you don’t have a bottle of sriracha in your refrigerator, you likely have a t-shirt featuring its now-famous label. Or a bag of sriracha-flavored popcorn in your pantry. Or any number of pre-made frozen meals that highlight it as the star attraction. Simply put, sriracha is America’s newest spicy sweetheart, and we can’t seem to get enough of it.
A Thai hot chili sauce made from chili pepper paste, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt, sriracha is almost like a ketchup made from peppers instead of tomatoes. Most frequently used like a ketchup, sriracha is also a popular dipping sauce — for those who can manage its heat. And for those who can’t, sriracha is often combined with mayonnaise. Diners seem to be adopting its flavor across the country in large numbers, though, as quick service restaurants like McDonald’s, White Castle, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell have all rushed to incorporate it into their menu offerings.
5. Sambal Oelek
Like sriracha, sambal oelek is a very spicy condiment made from chilies, vinegar, garlic, and salt. Unlike its Thai counterpart, this Indonesian condiment is less a refined sauce and more a paste in its consistency, with the chilies as the prime ingredient.
There are over 300 variations of traditional Indonesian sambal ranging from mild to very, very hot, depending on the type of pepper used as its base. Overall, this is a prime addition to sauces when you want to add heat to any dishes without affecting the flavor significantly. But remember that sambal has salt in it already, so be careful when seasoning your sauce on top of adding the sambal!
6. Banana Ketchup
The Philippines’ answer to its relative lack of tomatoes, banana ketchup is sweeter and thicker than most tomato ketchups and, as the name presumes, is banana-based. Why is it still red, then? Manufacturers add red food coloring to provide that distinctive hue for those used to the look of traditional ketchup on their fries, burgers, and meatloaf.
In most Filipino homes and restaurants, you’ll find banana ketchup serving as the base for a sweeter version of the traditional Italian Bolognese sauce, as well as a complement to Filipino-style deep-fried chicken. Not every banana ketchup recipe is spicy, but chefs on both sides of the Pacific experiment with heat when they make this popular condiment from scratch.
Often mistaken for a spice, the wasabi plant is actually a leafy vegetable called Japanese horseradish. Unlike Western horseradish (whose flesh is the edible part of the plant), it’s the stem of the wasabi plant that is ground for the condiment. Somewhat akin to hot mustard, wasabi produces heat in the nasal passages more so than on the tongue. It’s extremely pungent, and can be overwhelming in large amounts. But unlike the effects of hot peppers on your tongue, the burn of wasabi can be easily washed away with food or water rather quickly.
American diners will most often recognize this delectable bit of heat as the dabs of ground greenish paste accompanying sushi and sashimi in Japanese restaurants, but the applications for wasabi are unlimited. Everything from wasabi mayonnaise to wasabi peas and peanuts have infiltrated the US grocery market, and the paste has become a frequent guest star on menus paired with mashed potatoes and in salad dressings.
Want to explore some hot world cuisine a little deeper? Check out the newest trends in Cuban tastes hitting the American shores: