7 Asian Condiments You Definitely Need in Your Life

These spreads and sauces pack a flavorful punch — and there are tons of clever ways to use them.
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Photo By: Z. Kruger

Get Ready for Flavor

If you’re mystified by the jars lining the Asian aisle at the grocery store, we’re here to help. Consider this your essential primer to those enticing sauces and spreads — plus easy ideas for using them in your everyday cooking.

Sambal Oelek

What It Is: A chunky, complex Indonesian chile sauce. It combines ground fresh chiles (cayenne and habanero are common) garlic, ginger, lime juice or vinegar, and sometimes shrimp paste. Spicier and more sour than its cousin Sriracha, sambal oelek is primarily used in cooking but also serves as a table condiment.

 

How to Use It: Add it to soups, noodles or anything that could use a kick. Stir it into mayonnaise for a sandwich spread. Flavor braising liquid with it — it’s particularly delicious with pork.

Oyster Sauce

What It Is: A thick, dark sauce that is a fundamental flavor in Cantonese Chinese cooking. Making it starts by boiling oysters in water until they are reduced to a thick broth, and then adding salt, sugar, caramel and cornstarch. Salty and sweet, with tons of umami flavor, oyster sauce offers depth and richness to everything it touches.

 

How to Use It: Traditionally it’s drizzled over steamed greens, but you can turn it into a handy all-purpose sauce by thinning it with water or chicken stock and then whisking in some melted butter.  

Fish Sauce

What It Is: A salty, funky, umami-rich sauce used throughout Southeast Asia, where it plays a role similar to that of soy sauce. Fish sauce is made from anchovies fermented in brine, then pressed, strained and left to age. The end product is pungent to the nose but mild on the palate. When cut with other flavors (like citrus), it sits in the background but just makes everything taste better.

 

How to Use It: Mix it with citrus juice, sugar, garlic and ginger to create a tangy dipping sauce. Add drops to rice, soups and stir-fries for a salty-savory kick.

Hoisin Sauce

What It Is: A sweet, tangy and rich Chinese bean sauce (made from fermented soybeans, garlic, sugar and vinegar), so thick that it’s almost a paste. It’s primarily found with grilled and roasted meats — most famously as an accompaniment to Peking duck and mu shu pork.

 

How to Use It: It’s a great base for dipping sauces: Mix with peanut butter, lime juice and soy sauce, and thin with water (or simply thin with water and add rice vinegar to taste). You can also slather it on crepes or tortillas, and then wrap grilled or barbecued meats in them.  

Plum Sauce

What It Is: A sweet-sour Chinese condiment made from plums, sugar, vinegar and ginger — you might also know it as duck sauce (though, depending on where you live, you might argue otherwise). Plum sauce is a traditional partner for deep-fried foods, such as egg rolls. It's also great with roast chicken, makes a nice glaze for pork and, of course, goes well with duck.

 

How to Use It: It’s perfect alone for dipping, but you can also mix it with rice vinegar and peanut oil to make a vinaigrette.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Miso Paste

What It Is: A salty-savory, faintly sweet paste made from fermented soybeans and (sometimes) rice or barley. One of the pillars of Japanese cuisine, miso is incredibly versatile in the kitchen, as it has a knack for lending unobtrusive depth to almost anything.

 

How to Use It: Stir into hot soup (but don’t boil it, as too-high heat can ruin the flavor and aroma). Mix it with softened butter and some rice vinegar to create a glaze for meats and vegetables. Thin with water and combine with rice vinegar, sugar and sesame oil to make a salad dressing (or use a little less water and you've got a dip). Try it in place of salt in meatballs or tomato sauces.

Gochujang

What It Is: A brick-red Korean paste made from soybeans fermented with red chiles, rice and salt. Both salty and sweet, aggressively spicy and pungent, gochujang is a true umami-packed flavor bomb — so use it sparingly. It particularly shines as a flavor base for stews and in marinades for beef and pork.

 

How to Use It: Stir into rice or noodles. Add to barbecue sauces and dressings (Foodie Call star Justin Warner topped his twist on a bibimbap with it). Choose it to make a compound butter for steak.