x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Utopia is a superabundance of condiments (minus ketchup)

Most dishes can be spontaneously improved, if not rescued, with the aid of a bottle of hot sauce.

Mayonesa, a hit single by the retired Uruguayan cumbia band Chocolate, relates two great joys of the human experience: falling in love and making mayonnaise. Likening the beating of the heart to the beating of oil into egg yolk, they sing: "She shakes as though making mayonnaise … I don't know what my name is, or where I live; it doesn't interest me."

If I could live in an alternate universe, I'd choose the one with the most condiments. Then I'd open an International House of Mayonnaise, where dishes like egg salad and thick-cut fries could be served with the mayo of the diner's dreams: placid Dutch-style mayo, tart Belgian-style mayo, tangy Japanese kewpie mayo, rich and herbal tarragon mayo, and mayo grey areas such as salad cream and Miracle Whip. And we'd offer a dazzling selection of mustards to the apprehensive.

A condiment is not necessarily a sauce nor a dressing, although technically, all dressings and sauces are condiments. Condiments are generally added to a finished dish; individuals can then tweak it to suit their tastes. Condiments can be fresh or fermented, sweet or spicy, dry or saucy, runny or chunky. They can start out as shelf-stable pantry items, such as figgy, fruity mostarda, Hoisin sauce, HP sauce, fermented black beans, and the many different kinds of soy sauce - but they can also be made to move fast: guacamole, chimichurri, pesto and tapenade that will never be as good as they are the moment you're done making them.

A meal without condiments is not unfathomable, but neither is nuclear fallout. Most things I eat regularly are spontaneously improved, if not rescued, by the aid of a bottle of hot sauce or a tube of Colman's mustard. It was a country fair in Somerset that changed my outlook on condiments forever, urging me to reclassify them from the category of fussy and into the essential. At the fair, I discovered the most glorious sandwiches I'd ever tasted, with each one consisting of no more than three components: plain white bread, a filling of some sort, and an appropriate condiment. Succulent roast beef sandwiches were schmeared with horseradish. Fat, snappy veal sausage sandwiches were painted with sticky, citrusy Cumberland sauce. Nutty sharp cheddar was paired with piquant raisin chutney that someone could have whipped up in a barn.

Scabby jars and bottles line millions of refrigerator doors. But to sustain obsessions besides condiments, such as fresh food and an organised fridge, I have to choose my condiments carefully. It's like the scene in Fight Club when the narrator, referring to his own fridge, says: "How embarrassing: a house full of condiments and no food."

Last week, while cooking dinner with my preferred kitchen co-pilot, we got to talking about some of the things we had learnt from cooking together. "You're helping me work out my fear of the grill," I said. "And you," he replied, "reintroduced me to condiments!" It was true. I like to think that if you haven't found the right condiment for an occasion, then you're just not trying hard enough. I can imagine that many people probably see condiments as a mascot of delineation: home cooking and restaurant cooking. But I'm not one of them.

I can't remember a meal at home that didn't give me an excuse to play with condiments: I tap hot sauce on my eggs, spread Gentleman's Relish on hot buttered toast, squirt chilli sauce on my noodles, spread bread thickly with Branston pickle and whisk together chipotle peppers in adobo, sour cream and mayo. I dip bites of spicy mergeuz in harissa, or mix harissa with mayo to make harissa mayo, which is terrific on sandwiches. Grilled cheese sandwiches belong near a few chunks of piccalilli or chowchow - American interpretations of chutney that have replaced exotic ingredients such as tamarind with what's available, like green tomatoes and plums.

A jar of South Asian-style mango or lime pickle will not last a week in my fridge, but I do keep sambal oelek and ketjap manis around. Amba, an irresistible mango pickle, is drizzled on sabich, a fast-food sandwich that Iraqi Jews took to Israel and which is now sold at open air stalls and eaten on Shabbat mornings, when no cooking is allowed. The bread is stuffed with pre-made hummus, fried aubergine and hard-boiled eggs. If you like roasted red bell peppers, try muhammara, a buttery Syrian dip, or bread dunked in ajvar, Serbian vegetable "caviar", or mechwiya, the saucy North African relish. And condiments aren't shy, so don't skimp on the garlic, as shown in the finest versions of Lebanese taratour and thoum, and in Greek skordalia and tzatziki.

I have a cousin whose ketchup addiction is so severe that he hoards it and wears a T-shirt that reads "I put ketchup on my ketchup". It took me a while to warm to ketchup, which children like for its sweetness. I was always freaked out by French fry and ketchup sandwiches, the el cheapo lunch option in the school cafeteria. Even now, I eat commercial ketchup very rarely, preferring more savoury natural versions instead. Give me a chip "butty" or "barm" in the UK any day, but hold the ketchup and don't skimp on the butter and salt. Television advertisements for Heinz 57 were among the finest that the mid-1980s had to offer - "Ketchup with a kick!" - although its flavour leaves me waiting for the kick that never comes. As with ketchup, brand loyalty is a big thing with steak sauce, or brown sauce as it's known in the UK and Canada. Generic substitutes are everywhere and widely considered inferior.

Because I don't like to keep half-empty jars around indefinitely, I prefer to make my own condiments whenever possible, adapting them as I go for the menu at hand. Forget about mint jelly and apple sauce to accompany roasts. Try stirring smoked paprika, garlic and lime juice into tartare sauce, preferably homemade, then slather that on fried chicken sandwiches with lots of pickles and shredded lettuce. Make romesco, remoulade and Russian dressing - and don't expect leftovers.

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico

artslife@thenational.ae

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