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Demystifying The Origins And Contents of Favorite Condiments

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What's in that?
Demystifying the origins and contents of favorite condiments

By Cathy Thomas
The Orange County Register
Published February 6, 2002

Fish sauce proves that one cook's castoff is another's culinary treasure.

I'll admit that when the bottle is opened, it smells like a cross between mature Camembert cheese and week-old fish. But once you've combined fish sauce with other ingredients (often lime juice, sugar and a little chili), it's delectable. Really. Not stinky, but sweet-and-sour subtle. It's one of the essential flavor elements of Southeast Asian cuisine.

"To make it, anchovies are layered with salt in barrellike crocks and left to ferment," explains Vietnamese-born chef Haley Nguyen of Irvine, Calif., whose family has produced fish sauce in Vietnam for more than 75 years. "There's a spigot at the bottom where the liquid is drained off; it's cooked and strained through cotton cloth. Then it's left in another barrel in the sun.

Many mixtures, like fish sauce, may have ingredients that are mysterious to us. Here's the lowdown on some other favorite sauces we use more often: soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and ketchup.

Soy sauce serenity

This dark, salty sauce is basically made by fermenting boiled soybeans, roasted wheat or barley, and salt, usually for at least one year.

According to "The Oxford Companion to Food," by Alan Davidson, soy sauce was developed in China during the Zhou dynasty (1134-246 B.C.). Davidson writes that early soy sauce was a solid paste. That paste developed into two products, liquid shoyu and solid miso (a soybean paste with a peanut-buttery consistency). In China, the liquid sauce is used more than the paste; in Japan the two are of equal importance.

Soy sauce is used in Asia as freely as salt is in the West. Indeed, it's salty, but it also has a tangy taste with a mouthwatering meaty quality. Production includes a number of varieties, ranging in color from light to dark and in texture from thin to thick. In general, light soy sauce is thinner and saltier than dark soy sauce. Dark soy sauce is often darkened with caramel. Chinese dark soy is thickened with molasses. Japanese tamari, made without added grain, is similar in thickness to Chinese dark soy. There are also reduced-sodium soy sauces, often labeled "lite."

Ketchup crazy

It's hard to believe, but this tomato sauce is based on a Chinese pickled fish sauce, ketsiap. British seamen brought it to England in the 1700s, where cooks augmented it with everything from mushrooms to walnuts. When Americans adapted it to include tomatoes, ketchup (also sometimes spelled "catsup") took on a whole new meaning. In 1876, Henry Heinz introduced a commercial version of tomato ketchup. According to "The Great Food Almanac," by Irena Chalmers, Heinz billed his product "blessed relief for mother and the other women in the household."

Some gourmet markets now carry a variety of condiments dubbed "ketchup." Bottled mixtures with mangoes are labeled mango ketchup; pureed cranberry concoctions are called cranberry ketchup.

But it's tomato ketchup that's so hard to get out of the bottle. "Ketchup belongs to a family of substances called plastic solids, which retain their shape until a certain level of stress is applied," Chalmers writes. "The stress we all know well is a few firm thwacks with the heel of the hand on the base of the bottle. Technically, this mild violence is sufficient to make the ketchup flow. But those who have had such colorful experiences with recalcitrant ketchup might never believe it."


According to the Lea & Perrins folks, in 1835, Lord Sandys, a nobleman from Worcestershire, England, commissioned a pair of chemists, John Lea and William Perrins, to duplicate a sauce he had acquired during travels in India. Initially the product proved to be anything but pleasing, and they banished the brew to the cellar.

Two years later, before discarding the concoction, they tasted it. It had aged like fine wine, "exhibiting a savory aromatic scent and a wonderfully unique taste. Lea & Perrins Original Worcestershire Sauce was born."

The company says that ingredients come from all over the globe, including tamarinds from India, peppercorns from Zanzibar, chilies from Kenya, garlic cloves from Spain and anchovies from Morocco.

To be the "genuine article," the Lea & Perrins Co. says, Worcestershire sauce must contain vinegar, molasses, sugar, soy, anchovies, tamarind, shallots, garlic, red onion and salt. Ingredients are fermented in vinegar over a long period of time, then the mixture is strained and aged in wooden casks. Once mature, the sauce is strained again, though some solids are retained because their presence is essential to its flavor and character.

For the record, according to Webster's New World Dictionary, it's pronounced WOOS-ter-SHIR.

Grilled lemon grass beef with fish sauce
Preparation time: 45 minutes
Marinating time: 1 hour
Cooking time: 2 minutes per batch
Yield: 6 servings

Adapted from "Hot Sour Salty Sweet," by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.

2 stalks lemon grass, trimmed, tough outer layers removed, minced, see notes
2-3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 serrano chili, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fish sauce, see note
1 tablespoon each: fresh lime juice, water, Asian sesame oil
1 pound beef rump roast or eye of round, trimmed of fat
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds, see notes

Vietnamese table salad, see notes

Dipping sauce (nuoc cham), see notes

1. Place lemon grass, garlic, shallots and chili in blender. Blend, adding enough water to make a paste. Transfer paste to bowl; add fish sauce, lime juice and water. Stir to blend. Add sesame oil; stir well.

2. Cut meat, against grain, into thin 1/8-inch slices (this is easier if meat is very cold). Cut slices into 1 1/2-inch lengths. Place meat in shallow pan or bowl; add marinade. Mix well to coat meat. Cover; marinate 1 hour at room temperature or up to 8 hours in refrigerator.

3. Prepare grill or heat broiler with oven rack about 6-8 inches below heat element. Sprinkle meat with sesame seeds. Lightly oil grill rack or broiler pan. Grill or broil meat 1 minute per side for medium-rare.

4. Arrange on platter with Vietnamese table salad and dipping sauce on the side. Have diners enclose meat in lettuce leaf, taco style, tucking in some herbs from the salad, if desired. Top with sauce.

Notes: Fresh lemon grass, fish sauce and toasted sesame seeds are sold in Asian markets. Or, to toast sesame seeds at home, place in small dry skillet over medium-high heat. Shake handle to keep seeds rotating and toast until lightly browned. Watch carefully, because they burn easily.

For Vietnamese table salad, arrange on a platter leaves of cilantro, Thai basil, mint, leaf lettuce such as red leaf, small green onions and cucumber slices.

For dipping sauce, combine 1/4 cup each fresh lime juice, fish sauce (nuoc mam or nam pla) and water. Add 2 teaspoons rice or cider vinegar, 1 minced clove garlic and 1 tablespoon sugar; stir until sugar dissolves.

Nutrition information per serving (without salad or sauce):

125 calories, 43% of calories from fat, 6 g fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 1.2 g carbohydrates, 16 g protein, 260 mg sodium, 0.5 g fiber

Japanese stuffed mushrooms with soy sauce
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 7 minutes per batch
Yield: 6 servings

Adapted from "Madhur Jaffrey's Step-by-Step Cooking."

1 piece (1-inch-long) fresh ginger root, peeled, grated
1 egg
10 ounces ground chicken or turkey
1 green onion, trimmed, chopped, including part of green stalk
Freshly ground pepper
18 fresh shiitake mushrooms or white mushrooms, stems removed
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
6 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar or 3 tablespoons rice vinegar
Hot English dry mustard, optional

1. Place ginger in clean cloth; hold over medium bowl. Squeeze until as much juice is released as possible. Discard ginger.

2. Break egg into ginger juice; lightly beat. Add chicken, green onion and pepper to taste; mix. Wipe mushroom caps with moist paper towel. Stuff each mushroom with heaping teaspoon of chicken mixture, pressing filling down to flatten tops.

3. Place oil in large non-stick skillet on medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add mushrooms, stuffed side down. Cook, uncovered, in batches if necessary, 4-5 minutes or until lightly browned. Turn caps over; reduce heat to medium. Cover pan; cook 3-4 minutes. Meanwhile, combine soy and vinegar in small bowl. Mix mustard, if using, in a small bowl with enough water to make a thick sauce.

4. Arrange mushrooms, stuffed side up, on small individual plates. Spoon soy-vinegar mixture over each. Pass mustard separately, for optional dipping.

Nutrition information per serving:

155 calories, 44% calories from fat, 8 g fat, 1.7 g saturated fat, 70 mg cholesterol, 1,055 mg sodium, 9 g carbohydrate, 13 g protein, 1.3 g fiber

Worcestershire chili
Preparation time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: 60 minutes
Yield: 8 servings

2 pounds ground beef
2 medium onions, chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded, chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 can (28 ounces) crushed tomatoes
1 can (16 ounces) kidney beans, drained
1 can (7 ounces) diced mild green chilies
1 can (6 ounces) tomato paste
1/3 cup Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon each: ground cumin, salt
Shredded Cheddar cheese, optional

1. Brown ground beef in large pot or Dutch oven; drain. Add onions, pepper and garlic; cook on medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes or until vegetables are tender.

2. Add tomatoes, kidney beans, green chilies, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, chili powder, cumin and salt. Heat to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low; cover. Simmer 30 minutes. Top with grated Cheddar cheese.

Nutrition information per serving:

370 calories, 35% of calories from fat, 14 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 75 mg cholesterol, 32 g carbohydrates, 29 g protein, 725 mg sodium, 10 g fiber

Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune
When I get a little money, I buy books. And if there is any left over, I buy food.

- Desiderius Erasmus
When I get a little money, I buy books. And if there is any left over, I buy food.

- Desiderius Erasmus
post #2 of 2
Interesting article Isabelle!
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