In 2019, the last year in which uninterrupted eating out was actually a thing, the Holborn branch of Taco Bell witnessed two of London’s best chefs, Singburi’s Sirichai Kularbwong and Bake St’s Feroz Gajia, arrive armed with a bag full of hot sauces. Taco Bell is an establishment, let’s be clear, known for its conspicuous abundance of condiments, but this was not enough for a discerning chef. Out of Kularbwong’s bag came store-bought and homemade chilli oils; thin, runny uber-Tabascos; and thick, brazenly red srirachas — this arsenal moved a fast food meal into the height of luxury.
Gustave Flaubert’s insistence on “le mot juste” is mirrored in the pandemic chef’s search for “the right condiment.” A single sausage with a dollop of HP; a fish finger sandwich with homemade tartare; a Decatur seafood boil with a bottle of Crystal (hot sauce). With condiments, the lazy cook barely needs any actual ingredients or cooking technique: So long as a cupboard and fridge is stocked with the right condiments, the blandest, most disastrous cooking can be transformed and elevated into the outer spheres of heaven. “Manners maketh man,” the saying goes but in the words of Gajia, dipping a Crunchwrap into three separate hot sauces, “condiments maketh the meal.”
The following is a highly subjective list of shop-bought, restaurant produced, and homemade condiments, ordered from basic to expert level.
Unfairly tainted by its association with blandness and the white gaze, mayonnaise is the culinary equivalent of ointment: It can be applied to anything and it will make it better (and moister). More than that, it forms relationships with other condiments: It is a soothing companion to chilli oil and a boon brother to shallot sauce (more on this later.)
But what is the best mayonnaise on the market? Hellmann’s is better than the Heinz version, which is a mayo for cowards. Its rival, salad cream, isn’t as offensive as people like to pretend, but like a jaded Telegraph columnist, Heinz has to repeatedly cancel it to keep it relevant. The mayo of our times is the richer, more vinegary Japanese Kewpie (or Belgian La William) bought from a specialist in its minimalist, labelless bottles, as iconic as Coca-Cola. But why shell out for a bottle when an indistinguishable Polish mayo for a fraction of the price can be found in the local polski sklep?
That Anna Tobias sells a “brown” sauce at Cafe Deco is something of a culinary in-joke; “You want it browner?” she asks, in a Leonard Cohen whisper, of her famously brown cuisine. Tobias’s brown sauce, a matte, grainy counterpart to HP’s ultragloss, is a reminder of its natural origins as a fruit, that brown sauce is ultimately a type of tomato and apple jam. Its tartness cuts through bacon and sausage sandwiches alike, but would also work with a huge variety of Cafe Deco’s own food: From pies and stews, to sausage rolls and pork pies. Maybe even the school canteen style cakes for those feeling adventurous.
There is hot sauce and then there is Encona. Like sriracha, it has become a kind of metonym for a whole style of chilli sauce ─ thick, hot, and sour, its flow slower and more relaxed than a Giggs’ bar. The truth is, Encona is the best commercially available hot sauce around but it’s not because it’s great. It just has something over all its other easily found competitors. It’s not too thin like Cholula, it has acidity but isn’t super vinegary like Tabasco. It has heat behind it but it’s supremely versatile — something like Franks is unimprovable with buffalo wings but doesn’t work with a huge amount else; while sriracha’s sweetness works with East Asian cuisines, but no one is putting it on jerk chicken. The genius of Encona, the reason it does such good business with immigrant mums dousing it on chips and roast potatoes, is that it can be put on just about anything as a last resort. There is a comfort also in that it’s always there, at the back of the cupboard, even if it’s developing a crust.
Marmalade is a curious condiment in that it is distinctly British and yet most appreciated and refined by those who aren’t: A tradition that started with Peruvian Paddington Bear, continued by the multiple Japanese winners of the World Marmalade contest, and reaching its new variation in the marmalades coming out of chef Pam Yung’s kitchen at Flor in Borough Market. The latest is bergamot and vanilla, with the bergamot’s soapy florality tempered by the headiness of the vanilla rather than too much sugar, ensuring that it retains the strong bitterness beloved by marmalade aficionados, whatever their nationality.
Emulsifying always feels like magic in action, and it’s one of the most fun things to do in the kitchen for those who have the time. Here it is necessary to consult the master of aioli, the cookbook writer Richard Olney who has never been one to under garlic any recipe (people who add double the amount of garlic to any recipe, do not do this for an Olney recipe — death is a realistic eventuality.) The pungency of garlic is the soul of aioli: Olney recommends two cloves per person although he says he has read that “if certain persons find aioli indigestible, it is simply because too little garlic has been included in its confection, a minimum of four cloves of garlic per person being necessary.” First mash the garlic in a mortar, and then turn the ingredients directly in the mortar with the pestle: Egg yolk, salt (important to make the yolk thicken) and olive oil, drop by drop, acidifying with some lemon. The resultant pommade honks to high heaven, but cuts through any vegetable preparation with devastating brutality.
England Preserves Mustard
Those who’ve ever eaten at 40 Maltby Street will know this mustard as the one served with the ham , a deep ochre, the colour of freshly panned gold. It often comes in a thick, concentrated glob that sears the nose, leaving a sweet aftertaste that melds with the sweetness of the fat. Ignore the fact that its name sounds like a far-right hate group — this is a great and versatile English mustard.
The king of condiments: While all other condiments have their specific walk-on role to play in the theatre of cuisine, chilli oil is the ever present chorus. There is nothing that could not be improved with the addition of some chilli oil. A warming broth or soup? Chilli oil. That slow-cooked ragu that’s been simmering away? Chilli oil. Soft serve? You better believe some candied peanuts and Lao Gan Ma would improve that. Lao Gan Ma, with her stern, reassuring face, is the obvious choice, particularly the crisp version with its faint buzz of MSG and Sichuan peppercorns. Better still — convince a Chinese restaurant to sell their homemade chilli oil. Wong Kei sells its own for about £5 a jar — a bargain when you consider that it makes all of its one plates taste better than Hakkasan. Lockdown has also produced some new chilli oil developments: Try making the numbing, sanshool rich version from Ixta Belfrage’s stories, or buy one from @mamachens.kitchen, who is following a rich, pandemic tradition of people monetising their mum’s cooking.
Like the (false) factoid about humans not using 90 percent of their brains, cooks do not use the diversity of 90 percent of the pepper world. Most Brits stick to store bought black pepper, only rarely venturing out to white pepper if we’re feeling fancy or making a Cornish pasty. This is a tragedy. Not only does black pepper in itself contain a remarkable variety of flavours (depending on terroir) from bold, earthy Tellicherrys to milder Sarawaks, but it ignores red peppercorns, green peppercorns, and all the related (long pepper, citrus scented cubeb pepper) and unrelated false peppers: Numbing Sichuan peppercorns, floral Vietnamese wild peppers that smell like Aesop soap, musky Grains of Selim, real sansho that spreads across the mouth like an electric current. Getting better peppers is the single biggest thing anyone can do to improve their cooking, and getting rid of the salt/pepper binary is like going from monochrome Kansas to Technicolor Oz. Some of the best peppers on the market are from Epices Roellinger in Paris, or Épices de Cru out of Montreal (available via the Vinegar Shed in the U.K.) For those unkeen on paying the delivery fee, Spice Mountain in Borough Market is more than competitive.
Aged soy sauce
Soy sauce is an ingredient with a rich, complex history, spanning countries, cultures and styles, that in the U.K. is reduced to two options: Light (dark) or dark (darker). Unfortunately this elides the very best soy sauces, which are used not just for cooking, but as finishing condiments. One of the best commercially available is the aged white (meaning wheat heavy) soy sauce from Taiwanese restaurant Bao, which Bao historians will remember from its pairing with the 40-day aged beef rump dish at the Soho site. The taste of it is clean and precise, like a soy eau de vie, and while there will be those who might try to recreate the beef rump, there aren’t many better combos than a few, solitary drops on a piece of raw fish.
The rich diversity of mango-based condiments
While the South Asian world waits in silent anxiety for subcontinent mango season, this is the time to use up unripe, inferior mangos which can’t be eaten with erotic abandon. Pickling is the way to go, either in chunks with whole chillies (get in touch for my mum’s recipe, it can’t be put out in public) or blitzed into sour amba like the boys at Balady up in Temple Fortune do, to add colour and piquancy to hummus. Eater London editor Adam Coghlan also recommends kuchela, the spicy Trinidadian green mango relish that can be used liberally on rice or with doubles. Or, in a pita bread with sliced cheddar and tomato. Proudly African in Walthamstow sells Chief; if anyone can get hold of Matouk’s, please get in touch.
Sri Lanka has a tradition of sambols in the same way France has a tradition of mustards, or the UK government’s cabinet has a tradition of ministerial misconduct ─ there is one for every occasion. These sambols are related but distinct to Indonesia and Malaysia’s rich variety of sambals, and go well with the island’s diversity of short eats. One of the most beloved is seeni sambol, made from sticky caramelised onions. You can get an excellent version fragrant with curry leaves, pandan and tamarind, from Thuli Weerasena, whose supper club Pol Boy now sells jars of it. You can try using it authentically, but like any onion chutney it makes an elite cheese toastie.
Get a big sack of Ajinomoto from any East Asian grocery store and start using with abandon. It will change not just the cook’s cooking, but their life. Though be warned, there’s no going back after this.
Pickled wild garlic capers
An upside to the closure of hospitality is the shortage of wealthy gastrotourists harping on about their transcendent experience at Coombeshead Farm (“you really have to stay overnight ─ the breakfast is divine”) because it can now be ordered to London postcodes. Or at least fragments of it, like the kasekrainer (also available from Brawn) or wild garlic capers, pickled in cider vinegar. The size of grape pips, they have a pungent concentration that works well as a counterpart to any strong fish or boiled meat, popping in the mouth like adult Solero Shots (RIP.)
“Meet yuzu kosho, the secret weapon condiment chefs are putting on everything,” the now tainted food magazine Bon Appetit announced in 2016, with the reverent tones normally afforded to introducing a new, diverse editorial team. In the U.K., neither kosho nor condiment chefs have become big deals, but if there is a kosho epicentre in London it is located somewhere around London Fields, specifically Bright, where Will Gleave has wielded it ever since the deep cuts of the early P. Franco days. Bright has recently become a lockdown hero for its squid sandwiches, but it should be given more credit for opening up its larder, where the koshos and vegan XOs that normally adorned pockets of the menu can now be bought to take away. Previous iterations have included yuzu and tangerine, but currently it is lemon, which has all the brightness of a spicy Calippo. A small amount in dressings or broths goes a long way.
Bull Head Shallot Sauce
The single most versatile condiment ever made, shallot sauce is the Johann Cruyff in the squad of condiments — conceivably able to take the place of any other condiment on this list and do its job better. Shallot sauce is not the brownish sauce one might be imagining, but a suspension of deep fried onions in oil. Its taste is somewhere in between the crispy burnt onions a favourite aunt might put on her biryani, a mild chilli oil, and a tin of Bovril; intensely savoury from the addition of soybean and yeast, the latter of which makes a few teaspoons as disarmingly filling as a pint of Guinness. Shallot sauce recognises no nationality or cuisine: In the last week, in a kitchen close to home it’s been applied to a chicken sandwich, a pie, added to a salad dressing, thrown into a stir fry (in place of chopped onions), and on plain rice (in place of anything.) Just get some before Nigella blows it up.
Everyone on Twitter gets excited about this sauce, thinking it is simply the addition of coffee to sriracha, which is an objectively disgusting concept. No, what this is is a proper hot sauce but with the addition of coffee grounds, which gives it a distinctive fruity, nutty depth. An invention of Catalyst Cafe’s head chef Vasilis Chamam, the sauce accompanies many of the cafe’s trademark sandwiches and comes in three versions: not spicy (why?), spicy, and extra spicy. The extra spicy is the one: like all great hot sauces it is too spicy to actually consume but also too tasty not to. Its flavour profile is searing upfront, but then blooms into more complex flavours depending on the coffee grounds used, all of which are roasted in house. Interestingly, Chamam says naturally processed coffees are noticeably the tastiest, but also have a tendency to split.
From this point onwards, every condiment in this list gains its potency from either fermented seafood or an absurd amount of chilli. Shito has both: A garnet-hued Ghanaian hot sauce that combines searing chilli heat with the smoky pungency of dried fish and shrimp. It is rumoured that Deliveraid co-founder and restaurant maven Will Akman is in possession of an auntie-made shito to end all shitos, but in the meantime one can either convince Kate’s Cafe or Joké Bakare of Chishuru to sell their wares, or, for the lucky ones, pick some up from Kaieteur Kitchen where one of Faye Gomes’s cooks makes some in her spare time (while there, pick up Gomes’s pepper sauce too.)
The best expression of anchovy is just eating them from the jar standing up at the kitchen counter with zero accompaniment, but the next best is as a condiment. Fergus Henderson swears by Gentleman’s Relish, which adorns St John Bread and Wine’s Scotch Woodcock (the single best thing on that breakfast menu) and makes a simple scrambled eggs on toast come alive. But the best thing to buy is colatura d’alici, the Italian fish sauce made from the concentrated, bronzed droplets of liquid squeezed out from barrels of anchovies fermenting with salt. This can be used during the cooking process — a spoonful to a ragu is like dosing it with MSG — but it can also be used as a finishing ingredient. Simply chop raw garlic, chillies and parsley, and a spoon of colatura with some cooking water and pasta, maybe with some black pepper and Parmesan on top. A dish fit for a lord.
The Nigerian food writer Tunde Wey describes yaji as “a secret to everyone” with “as many variations as there are Mallams who make it.” Ask any of London’s suya vendors what the Sahara’s worth of yaji they get through each day contains and it will elicit mock offense, as if what’s been requested was their pin code or mother’s maiden name. According to Chishuru’s Joké Bakare, the base of yaji will be “ginger, garlic, Grains of Selim, false cubeb pepper, onion flakes, dried chilli, paprika and salt, and in most cases bouillon powder” with many chefs then adding kuli kuli (peanut brittle) and dawadawa (fermented locust bean.) But listing ingredients is like trying to describe a Titian by reeling off a Dulux colour chart of his paints: The overall effect of a great yaji is of the ingredients moving as one, a jolt through the body, numbing the mouth, stopping the heart and rushing up the nose with aromatics of musk, citrus and spice. The key to a great yaji is also freshness ─ if it can’t be ground fresh, then make sure to take a pot from Alhaji Suya to shake over the suya, and save a bit for later, or, even better, buy a whole freshly ground pack to take home.
Basically Vietnamese fermented shrimp paste, mam tom’s bureaucratic grey appearance does not prepare for the aroma, which San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Soleil Ho has compared to the “really dank smell of a French Quarter dumpster during Mardi Gras.” There is a slightly corrupt edge to the flavour, like the funk of a thousand prawn heads atomised to the density of a neutron star. Find jars at any Vietnamese supermarket, like Kim Lien in Peckham, but the best can be found at Thuy Nguyen’s Pho Thuy Tay on the Old Kent Road. A bowl of plain rice with a teaspoon of Nguyen’s mam tom mixed with sugar, calamansi and a dash of water on top has an intensity that would stop any London chef in their tracks. “These sauces are ingrained in Vietnamese culture,” Nguyen explains. “We’re a nation of fishermen, so you catch the fish and preserve it as long as possible through fermenting or salting it. So we’ve always grown up with some sort of fermented fish or seafood. But the interesting thing is because Vietnam is so long and thin, every single region has their own version of it.” Get lucky and find bottles of other “mam” condiments ─ like mam tep chung thit with pork ─ to buy stacked up on the counter, which Nguyen advertises on Facebook whenever she has a surplus, but otherwise grab a portion to take away as an accompaniment to one of the most hardcore offal plates this city has ever seen.
Half a kilo of laap spice
It’s Christmas Day and half a kilo of laap spice has turned up in an eager cook’s stocking because a considerate and cultured person ordered it after seeing it recommended in the Vittles Christmas guide. “What on earth do I do with half a kilo of laap spice?” they wonder. They open it up only to get hit by the scent of wood-smoked chilli, long pepper, prickly ash, and about a dozen other aromatics, a smell that has a physical aura, one that is felt as it fills the sinuses and shuffles down the throat. Nibbling a bit they are hit by the realisation that it might be the single hottest thing they’ve has ever tasted, that this is exactly what it would feel like to be a medieval peasant eating a Flamin’ Hot Dorito without any cultural context on what chillies, corn, or nachos are. Coughing and slightly in pain, with cold beads of sweat trickling down their head, they keep eating more. In a few weeks, it’s been on everything: Not just laaps but hidden in meatballs, in ragus, in shepherd’s pie, in cheese toasties, sprinkled on things laap spice was never meant to go on. Their partner has already banned them from using it because everything tastes like laap spice. After what seems like a hundred laap spiced meals, the bag is weighed. How much is left? It weights 497g. They start to sense that laap spice may outlive them.