There’s a whole world of condiments, sauces, stocks, and spice blends beyond the American pantry that can add a fresh take and some complex flavor to your cooking. Try some of these specialties and bring home a little taste of the Philippines, Italy, Tunisia, or Sweden — you'll soon find out that there’s a lot more to life than ketchup, mustard, and plain old salt and pepper.
Amarena Cherries, Italy
Enjoy an upgrade from those syrupy, sweet maraschinos atop whipped cream with amarena cherries, a wild variety of black cherry from the Bologna and Modena regions of Italy. Intensely flavored with a hint of bitterness, these small fruits are preserved in a rich syrup and jarred. Most often used as a decadent topping for gelatos, cheesecakes, and other Italian desserts, amarena cherries are rich, complex, and nutty enough to accent savory dishes or enhance an elegant cheese board. Of course, they’re also great in manhattans or any cocktail calling for a cherry garnish.
Tkemali is a thick, versatile sauce made from a sour variety of cherry plum. Tkemali is essentially the ketchup of Georgia and is ubiquitous as a seasoning for stews or as a garnish for potato dishes, grilled meats, fried food, and seafood. Red and green versions of the sauce are both popular. The red variant is sweeter and made from fully ripened plums, while the green is made from unripe fruit. Both versions include garlic, dill, coriander, salt, and other ingredients in order to create a tart, rather pungent concoction.
Dashi, a staple of Japanese cuisine, is a broth made from bonito fish flakes and kelp seaweed, also known as kombu. Whether it’s made from scratch or from heating packets of dashi flakes (akin to a bouillon cube) in water, the broth is less fishy and more akin to seawater. Shirodashi — often spelled shiro dashi or shiro-dashi — takes dashi up a few notches with the addition of soy sauce, mirin, and sugar. The mix, a bottled soup base or seasoning for stir-fries and sauces, hits every tasting note. It’s sweet and salty, funky and rich, and a true umami moment. Swap some into your favorite marinade, soup, or Asian-inspired vinaigrette.
Generally from Tunisia but popular all over north Africa, harissa is a spicy paste ideal for marinades or stews. The base is a mix of hot chili peppers, which give it both heat and its vibrant red color. It’s then rounded out with garlic, olive oil, cumin, coriander, mint, caraway, and other spices. Rich and aromatic, harissa is best in soups, rice, or couscous dishes, as a garnish to meat and fish entrées, or in a dip alongside fresh pita bread.
Popular in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, smörgåskaviar is kind of like a spreadable, less fancy caviar. It contains cod roe and oil, plus other flavors ranging from herbs and vegetables to mashed potatoes. Packaged in a tube for easy squeezing onto toast, open-faced sandwiches, and egg dishes, smörgåskaviar is briny, salty, and has a bit of sweetness from added sugar. Look for smoked and unsmoked variants, as well as those flavored with dill or tomato sauce. A relatively recent phenomenon, smörgåskaviar was first sold in tubes and became widely popular in the 1950s.
Colatura di Alici, Italy
Fish sauce isn’t just popular in Southeast Asia. Colatura di alici is a pantry staple that can add layers of salty, briny, and umami flavor to soups and sauces. From the Campania region of Italy, this coastal elixir is the result of slow-aging layered anchovy fillets and sea salt. The barrels of salted fish age and ferment over time, creating a liquid. The resulting colatura di alici sauce tastes of the Mediterranean Sea without being too fishy and is an elevated way to add dimension to simple pasta dishes, marinades, or a sophisticated caesar dressing.
Banana Sauce, The Philippines
Banana sauce is a bit of a curiosity. It’s indeed made from bananas (along with sugar and vinegar), but it doesn’t taste or look like the fruit. Usually red in color, banana sauce is similar to ketchup but has fewer tomatoes. It developed when tomato ketchup became scarce during World War II. The slightly sweet, tangy condiment is frequently served with lumpia spring rolls or as a sauce on a spaghetti dish that features sliced hot dogs.
Za’atar, Middle East
A fragrant and widely used spice blend, za’atar generally contains thyme, toasted sesame seeds, salt, and a combination of sun-dried herbs and spices that often include marjoram, oregano, coriander, fennel seed, savory, and sumac. Exact recipes range from region to region and even from family to family, but za’atar has been a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine since medieval times. The combinations are subtly tangy, making it a seasoned salt ideal for all kinds of dishes. Pick up a blend to use in marinades or salad dressings or mix it with olive oil for a zesty dip.