Countertop Culture

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Anything that’s added to augment the flavor of food is considered a condiment, but beyond the table-sauce trinity (ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard) exist thousands of dips, toppings, sauces, spreads, and seasonings that distinguish regional flavors throughout the world. From aioli to za’tar, condiments reflect who we are more than any other food, most dramatically in the way we’ve steadily co-opted, altered, and rebranded them to suit our particular tastes.

Take piccalilli, an English interpretation of Indian chutney. Ancient holy men of India first discovered the preservative powers of spices and began to mix them with various fruits and vegetables. But it was a British officer, the mysterious Major Grey, who supposedly popularized the English version of the Indian chutney. This relish of chopped vegetables has, in some sense, been tailored to a different palate, as continental chefs began substituting cabbage and kidney beans in place of the mangoes, samphire, and lemons that were the standard in the East Indies. In the end, it’s the lip-puckering vinegar that gives chutney its royal flair.

Today, Major Grey’s chutney is a condiment with a bit of an identity complex: part relish, part jam, sometimes cooked but often raw, this savory preserve comes in many forms. To complicate matters, we don’t know who Major Grey was, or if he ever actually existed. The military name certainly evokes British Colonial India, but producers of his chutney can’t agree on an authentic recipe. One popular version is made with tamarind, another with ginger, and another with neither. Suffice it to say, whatever the man’s wartime spoils or foibles, Grey’s name lives on as a curiously tangy message in a bottle. What that message says, however, is often just a matter of taste.

The term condiment comes from the Latin condimentum, meaning “spice, seasoning, sauce;” the verb condire (“to preserve, pickle”) is a variant of condere, “to put away, store.” As its etymology suggests, a condiment must have a shelf life. Until recently, that meant a vinegar-, salt-, or sugar-based concoction: foods preserved and transformed through fermentation. Sour and aromatic vinegar, for example, savory fish sauce, brine-laden pickles, pungent mustard, sweet and sour ketchup. These days, a condiment is a catch-all term for sauces, dips, and dressings that vary wildly in taste and texture, from sweet to savory to umami. The key difference between condiments and seasonings, however, is that condiments are chiefly applied by the diner, and seasonings applied by the cook. As such, they are perhaps the easiest way for consumers to customize a dish or reimagine it entirely.

Condiments aren’t just localized additions to standard meals (adding chutney to lamb tikka in India, for example, or mint jelly to lamb in Scotland). They are alternatively individually altered according to geography. Rooster sauce (a blend of chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt), popularized in places like Southern California, is actually a milder version of the original Sriracha, a dipping sauce that comes from Eastern Thailand. Teriyaki is reimagined in the States as a soy-based barbeque glaze, sweet and smoky rather than tangy and salted as in the original Japanese version, while Korean kimchi in Russia is distinctly Soviet: pickled beets and ocean kelp, the so-called “marine cabbage.”

Not surprisingly, international markets have modified recipes to suit regional tastes, since many countries support part of their economies with condiment production for internal use, as well as for trade around the world. Food preparation and consumption have always been influenced by geography, abundance, scarcity, and human migration. But there exists the possibility that “pure” regional flavors might simply be historical constructs; after all, a condiment is by definition dynamic and changing.

“For us, a condiment is anything that enhances the flavor of another product,” says Jeannie Milewski, executive director of the Association for Dressings and Sauces (ADS). ADS represents manufacturers of various sauces and dressings, along with suppliers of raw materials and equipment that go into producing condiments in the U.S. and abroad. “There are regional differences in flavor profiles within the United States and internationally,” explains Milewski. “Consumers are more willing to try different tastes and food ingredients than they were 50 years ago.” The world’s increasingly sophisticated palate is certainly on display at ADS’ awards ceremony, where the organization recognizes two category winners for the most innovative and delicious products of the year. In years past, prizes have gone to Sweet Chili Korean Style BBQ sauce, Spicy Jerk Dressing with Hemp Seeds and Bacon Marmalade—hybrid condiments if ever there were any.

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While condiment crossover often means bold new flavors and more authentic expressions of diversity, it can also water down local culture in the process. Luckily, many condiment recipes have stood the test of time (pico de gallo, soy sauce, sweet relish, shrimp cocktail sauce). These preserves keep both ingredients and tradition alive for generations. “Perhaps it makes sense to consider cultural differences in condiments as a natural consequence of the well-established cultural differences in taste and cuisine,” says Charles Spence, Oxford Professor of Experimental Psychology and author of “The Psychology of Condiments.” Spence is interested in gastrophysics, an academic discipline built on “a growing understanding that the pleasures of the table reside as much in the mind, as in the mouth, of the taster.” He argues that there are various flavor pairing principles in different parts of the world: Western recipes, for instance, tend to incorporate ingredients that share more chemical compounds. By contrast, in parts of India and a number of Asian countries, ingredients tend to be combined in recipes that share fewer compounds. A sweet, vinegary taste, for example, might be attained through the use of togarashi in Japan; in Vietnam, sambal; in Mexico, hot sauce; in the United States, ketchup.

Data collected by ADS also points to a link between geography and condiment preference. BBQ sauce, for example, has a higher index in the Midwest, hot sauce in the South, Asian sauce in the West, and horseradish in the Northeast, according to Stan Samples, communications director at ADS. The association even keeps a handy dictionary of condiments for consumer reference. Though salt and umami remain common flavor features of many condiments throughout the world, it seems regional differences still exist and that these differences are emblematic of culture as well as flavor. From tartar sauce to Tabasco, Thousand Island to Worcestershire, cravings are as varied and dynamic as the populations that experience them.

Condiments are sometimes so tied up in our sense of place that they become a kind of regional shorthand. Consider peanut butter: while people in other parts of the world eat it, nowhere is peanut butter devoured with the same gusto as in the United States, where jars can be found in an estimated 85% of households. Jelly’s other half, peanut butter—which contains neither butter nor nuts (peanuts are legumes)—is one of the most polarizing of condiments, right up there with Marmite and mayonnaise. Love it or hate it, peanut butter has stubbornly resisted any great alteration to its original recipe of ground roasted peanuts and oil, though it has inspired other nut butter offshoots (cashew, almond, macadamia, and even sesame and argan nut). Like other distinctly American fare (e.g. pumpkin pie, hot dogs, marshmallows), peanut butter is almost always found in the “American” aisle of a grocery store.

Then there are condiments that seem ubiquitous: honey or mustard, for example. Whole grain or Dijon, deli-style or picnic-gourmet, bright yellow or dark brown, mustard is perhaps the most steadfast of the sauces, retaining its trademark flavor in all of its iterations: vinegary, pungent, and sharp. As a condiment, mustard is ancient. The Romans experimented with its preparation, mixing unfermented grape juice with ground mustard seeds to make “burning must.” French monasteries cultivated and sold mustard as early as the ninth century, and the condiment was for sale in Paris by the 13th century. Since mustard was cultivated locally and made available at a low cost, it was the only condiment accessible to everyone during the Middle Ages. Mustard still takes up real estate in most refrigerators the world over, its longevity due, more than anything else, to its singular flavor.

“Ultimately, the existence of condiments is probably also an acknowledgement of the very different worlds of taste in which we all live,” says Spence. We stock our refrigerators with mild salsa and gluten-free soy sauce, store-bought móle and nut-less peanut butter, spreading culture directly onto our toast, as it were. Does this worldwide quest for flavor—one of the earliest indicators of globalization—point to an increasing homogeneity in our kitchens, or does it signify a more authentic expression of our diverse communities?

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Adrienne Bernhard