Adding interesting new flavors to your cooking could be as simple as adding new bottled sauces to your refrigerator. The typical American fridge contains ketchup, mustard and mayo— but a world of wonderful alternative sauces and spreads can be found at imported-foods specialty stores, the international aisle of well-stocked supermarkets and online.
The best bottled sauces embody flavor complexities that otherwise can be very difficult to replicate—they’re the concentrated thoughts and efforts of chefs and cultures. Adding a drizzle to a familiar dish or marinating an ingredient in one of these sauces could instantly transform the same old meal into something special and new.
International sauces that are worth seeking*…
Banana Sauce is the ketchup of the Philippines—in fact, it’s sometimes called banana ketchup. Ketchups used to be made from different fruits and vegetables, and in some parts of the world, they still are. Banana sauce usually is sweet, with subtle tropical flavors rather than the tanginess of tomato ketchup. Try it on omelets, hot dogs, barbecue meats or any grilled dish. Example: Jufran Banana Sauce. $6.80 for a 12-ounce bottle.
Gochujang is a dark red paste that is tremendously popular in Korea. Made mainly from red chili peppers, rice powder and fermented soybeans, its flavor is layered and complex—tangy, spicy, salty and slightly fruity with the umami “meatiness” of fermented soy. (Chefs call umami a “meaty” or “savory” taste akin to Parmesan cheese or salted mushrooms.) Try adding a modest amount to eggs, noodles, marinades, dumplings or even a ham or grilled-cheese sandwich. Example: Bibigo Go-Chu-Jang Hot & Sweet Sauce is a version of gochujang stocked by many US supermarkets. $3.99 for an 11.5-ounce bottle.
Kecap manis is a thick-bodied Indonesian version of soy sauce. The saltiness and umami of soy are joined by the sweetness of palm sugar and the warmth of a spice blend that typically includes star anise, cinnamon and coriander. It’s an excellent marinade or glaze for meat, seafood or vegetables…or it can be used as a condiment drizzled over eggs, sandwiches or roast chicken. Example: ABC Kecap Manis. $9.98 for a 20.2-ounce bottle.
Oyster sauce is a thick, dark syrup made primarily from boiled-down oyster juices. It doesn’t taste like oyster—its flavor is umami and lightly sweet and salty. Drizzling a little oyster sauce over meat, fish or vegetable dishes…or marinating ingredients in a few teaspoons of oyster sauce for five minutes…is a simple way to bring an unmistakably Asian flavor to a wide range of dishes. Something as familiar as a hamburger can be transformed. Example: Lee Kum Kee is well-distributed in the US. $8 for an 18-ounce bottle.
Ponzu is a tangy, light, bright, cleantasting sauce popular in Japan. Made from ingredients including soy, vinegar and the juice of citrus fruit, it adds a lively citrus note to foods. Ponzu is excellent on raw shellfish, such as clams and oysters, or as a salad dressing. Example: Kikkoman Ponzu. $2.29 for a 10-ounce bottle.
Thai peanut sauce is mild and comforting, not at all heavy and cloying the way peanut butter can be. In addition to peanut, most peanut sauces contain rice vinegar, soy and ginger. Try Thai peanut sauce as a marinade, a bread spread or a dip—anything you like to dip in blue cheese dressing is likely to be great dipped in Thai peanut sauce as well. Example: House of Tsang Bangkok Peanut Sauce. $10.90 for an 11.5-ounce bottle.
Aioli is essentially a Mediterranean mayonnaise that contains garlic. It’s tangy, creamy and delicious— truly fantastic as a dip for French fries or drizzled over vegetables or seafood. Example: There are many artisan aiolis available, but if you’d like to start with an inexpensive, easy-to-find one, try JL Kraft Garlic Aioli. $2.58 for a 12-ounce bottle.
Ajvar (pronounced “aye-var”) is a Balkan sauce or spread made from roasted sweet red peppers, eggplant and, in some versions, tomato. Its flavor combines the earthy taste of eggplant with the fruitiness of red peppers. Its texture is similar to hummus. Ajvar is tasty on bread or toast and makes a distinctive and delicious topping for baked potatoes, meatloaf and pasta. Try it in place of mayo when you make potato salad—the result will be an entirely new take on a familiar side dish. Example: Sera Mild Ajvar. $14.99 for a 24.33-ounce bottle.
Maggi Seasoning was invented in Switzerland, though it’s become the condiment of choice for many Thai and Malaysian street foods and can be found in Asian markets in the US. It’s somewhat similar to soy sauce but contains no soy—it’s made from wheat. Maggi seasoning delivers even more rich, meaty umami flavor than soy sauce, with less saltiness. Drizzle it on noodles or roast chicken…or mix a little into soup. Example: Maggi seasoning isn’t just a type of sauce—it’s a brand name that’s been owned by the well-known food-products company Nestle for decades. $6.39 for a 6.7-ounce bottle.