fb-pixel Skip to main content

What’s your secret sauce?

All condiments are not equal.

Heather Hopp-Bruce

I have always loved condiments, but it wasn’t until I became a parent to a somewhat particular eater that I truly understood: Condiments are magic. They can make the difference between a nutritionally adequate but bland meal and one I’m excited to eat. Nowhere is this more true than with the simple dinner of poached chicken + rice + vegetables that I have eaten infinite times without feeling I’m in a culinary prison, thanks purely to condiments. Right now, with refrigerator contents running low, the condiments that hang out on the door are my salvation.

All condiments are not, however, equal. My storage space for jars, tubes, and bottles may be maxed out, but there are just a few that I turn to again and again.


The power list

1. Lao Gan Ma spicy chili crisp - My beloved. My ride or die. The degree to which I am attached to/obsessed with this spicy-savory-crunchy Chinese chile/oil/bean/MSG concoction might frighten me, if I didn’t have so many fellow acolytes. It’s a cult I am happy to surrender to, because a dollop of this makes everything better: chicken, seafood, eggs, greens, rice, noodles, soups, dips, even vanilla ice cream. When it starts to run low, I panic a little bit.

2. Valentina black label hot sauce - I’ve got your sriracha, your Tabasco, your Frank’s. All have their place. But Valentina, made in Guadalajara, Mexico, is my favorite all-time, all-around hot sauce. It is cheap and the very best. Don’t mess with the yellow label; go straight for the black label “extra hot,” which honestly is not that hot, just extra flavorful. I have chef Ken Oringer to thank for Valentina’s significant place in my life, as I discovered it at his former Fenway taqueria, La Verdad. Saltines + tinned fish = a fine snack. Squiggle some Valentina across the top, though, and *chef’s kiss.*


3. Momofuku ssam sauce - I’ve been making this since “Momofuku: A Cookbook” came out in 2009. It’s part of the recipe for bo ssam, a roasted pork shoulder that may go down as one of the best party dishes in history. I make that, too, from time to time. But I always have a jar of this slightly spicy, very vinegary sauce on hand. You can, too: Combine 1 tablespoon ssamjang (Korean fermented bean and chile paste), 1/2 tablespoon gochujang (chile paste), 1/4 cup sherry vinegar, and 1/4 cup olive oil (the original recipe calls for something neutral like grapeseed oil) in a jar and stir/shake until evenly mixed. It lands somewhere between hot sauce and vinaigrette, and thus for me is kind of a holy grail, best-of-all-worlds topping.

4. Ginger-scallion sauce - The New York Chinatown poultry accompaniment of my younger years, this sauce is so fragrant, flavorful, and delicious. It’s perfect stirred into noodles or served with poached chicken (a platter of cold slices over watercress with a bowl of this on the side makes a nice addition to a brunch spread, when one day we brunch again). The version I make I believe originally came from Gourmet magazine, which was inspired by that served at canonical Chinatown restaurant Great N.Y. Noodletown. Here’s how: In a bowl, stir together 1/4 cup olive oil (the original calls for vegetable oil); 4 teaspoons finely grated, peeled fresh ginger; 4 teaspoons minced scallion; 2 teaspoons sesame oil; and kosher salt to taste.


5. Nam pla prik - This fish sauce spiked with Thai chiles is so good drizzled over rice, eggs, or vegetables. It has all the umami-giving merits of fish sauce, plus plenty of heat. To make it, I recommend wearing gloves, a newly hot commodity. Mince 1/2 cup of Thai bird chiles, then transfer them, seeds and all, to a glass jar. Add 1 cup of fish sauce and close that jar very tightly! It gets better after a few days, when the flavors have mingled and mellowed.

6. Olive oil and coarse salt - OK, these don’t live in my refrigerator and aren’t really condiments per se, but I’d be lost without a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of coarse salt to finish so many dishes, in particular soups and anything pasta-based. (Same goes for a good old lemon wedge. And a shaving of Parmesan.)

Honorable mention: Trader Joe’s Italian Bomba Hot Pepper Sauce. I’m not much of a TJ’s shopper, but I did wander in there a month or two ago, when wandering casually into stores was something we still did. I wound up with a deeply random assortment of items, including a jar of this fiery-awesome fermented Calabrian chile relish. The stuff is a blessing on sandwiches. If you brave the insanity that is Trader Joe’s, godspeed, wear a mask, and don’t forget to pick up a jar. Chefs Unmi Abkin and Roger Taylor of Coco & The Cellar Bar in Easthampton share my condiment-adoring philosophy, as they reveal in the cookbook “Curry & Kimchi.” “I strongly believe that the sauce is really important. That is what really makes a meal,” Abkin told me in an interview last year. That emphasis dictates the form of the cookbook: “We start off with teaching people how to make the sauce. Then on the next page, we go to how to put it together. Once you have the sauce made, your preparation of your meal is so much easier.” This peanut sauce, and the accompanying chicken-rice bowl, is from them.


Thai chicken bowl with peanut sauce, from "Curry + Kimchi" by Unmi Abkin and Roger Taylor.Keller + Keller/Photo by Keller + Keller Photography

Thai Peanut Sauce

Makes 2 1/4 cups

2 tablespoons light brown sugar

2 tablespoons honey

7 tablespoons unsweetened peanut butter

2 tablespoons Thai red curry paste

1 (13.5-ounce) can coconut milk

1 teaspoon lime juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons hoisin sauce

1. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, heat the light brown sugar and honey until melted.

2. Add the peanut butter and curry paste. Stir constantly until they are fully incorporated.

3. Add the coconut milk, lime juice, salt, and hoisin sauce. Continue stirring until all the ingredients are melted and just combined. The sauce will keep in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.

Thai Chicken Rice Bowl

Serves 4

4 cups finely shredded cabbage (green, red, or a combination)

2 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 cup Thai sweet chile sauce (if available)


1 teaspoon finely grated, peeled fresh ginger

2 teaspoons olive oil

4 cups cooked rice (preferably jasmine)

2 cups cooked and cubed chicken

1 cup Thai peanut sauce

1 cup chopped lettuce

1/4 red onion, thinly sliced

1/4 cup chopped mint

1. In a large bowl, combine cabbage and salt. Let sit for 30 minutes, then transfer to a colander and rinse well with cold water. Squeeze as much water from the cabbage as possible.

2. Add chile sauce (if using), ginger, and olive oil. Toss well to combine.

3. Divide among four bowls the rice, chicken, peanut sauce, cabbage, lettuce, onion, and mint.

Adapted from “Curry & Kimchi,” by Unmi Abkin & Roger Taylor. Photo by Keller + Keller Photography.

Devra First can be reached at devra.first@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.