For years, ketchup was Natasha White's condiment of choice, dressing her eggs, potatoes and anything greasy.
Then something happened. Maybe her tastes changed. Maybe it's just an experimental phase. Either way, in recent years she has found herself more often reaching for hot sauce than Heinz.
"I never liked Tabasco, but one of my closest friends is Korean and she introduced me to Sriracha sauce," White, a 26-year-old New York restaurant manager, says of the Asian-inspired hot sauce. "We put it on everything."
She is hardly alone. Americans' persistent search for new, exciting and more intense flavors has them looking beyond the big three — ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard — that for so long dominated the shelves of the nation's collective refrigerator door.
"You are seeing people taking basic condiments and doing really great things with them," says Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food and Wine magazine.
They also are reaching for condiments the typical American palate once would have considered highly unusual, such as artisanal soy sauces, the Asian equivalent of Italy's finest balsamic vinegars. And hot sauces of varieties and intensities that almost boggle the mind. And unusual blends of herbs, such as Morocco's ginger and peppercorn-rich ras el hanout.
"Every other kind of condiment in the country has become more prevalent," says
John Willoughby, executive editor at Gourmet magazine. "We are looking for stronger tastes and more unique flavors. People are looking more for chutneys, salsas and sambals."
As a result, sales of ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard have stagnated since 2001, actually declining 2 percent between 2004 and 2005, according to a recent market analysis from Packaged Facts, the publishing division of MarketResearch.com.
The report, which predicts the decline will continue through 2010, blames the change in part on a lack of innovation in traditional condiments. Changing demographics also play a role.
Fueled by Americans' love for Hispanic flavors and a burgeoning Hispanic population, salsa has supplanted ketchup as the nation's favorite condiment and last year accounted for $1 billion in sales. Other flavors gaining popularity include mole, a rich, smoky cooked sauce of garlic, onion, chilies and sometimes Mexican chocolate.
With a world of flavors to explore, here are some tastes the experts say are worth trying.
Artisanal soy sauces
Not your standard supermarket soy sauce. These salty potions made from steamed soybeans are delicately crafted and aged, some in barrels for more than a hundred years. They are to Japanese cuisine what fine oils and vinegars are to European fare.
"It's a quick way to add a lot of flavor to something ketchup and mustard can't do," Willoughby says. "As people are looking for quicker ways to cook meals, they have become a good way for a shortcut."
These spicy or sweet chunky spreads indigenous to India have been adapted to Western tastes for hundreds of years, especially in Great Britain, which has a long love affair with Indian food. These are a wonderful accompaniment to spicy and savory foods.
But recently, companies such as Stonewall Kitchen and New York-based Hampton Chutney started stocking shelves of gourmet grocers with flavors such as mango, cilantro and peanut.
These are so beyond the jars of bread and butter pickles you toss on your burger. Pickling, especially of less common items such as carrots, green beans and okra, is turning into big business for some companies.
"Somehow kimchee seems to be everywhere," Cowin says of Korea's pickled cabbage condiment. "You see it at farmers markets in New York, but also in Minneapolis. They even sell it as Sam's," the wholesale club owned by Wal-Mart.
New York-based Rick's Picks pickles in unusual brines seasoned with paprika, rosemary, lime and ginger. The company has seen profits triple every year since starting in 2004 and now ships 10 different pickled vegetables to roughly 400 shops nationwide.
Roasted red pepper spread
This staple of Eastern European and Middle Eastern cultures has become hugely popular as a sandwich spread or addition to sauces.
It is made from pureed fire-roasted red peppers mixed with olive oil, spices and other ingredients, such as eggplant.
"(Hot sauces) are becoming more condiment-like," says Jim Kelley, founder of Savannah-based hot sauce dealer Mo Hotta Mo Betta. "They are becoming something that you can eat at every meal. They are hot, but not so hot that they burn you."
That helps explain how they've grown into a $156 million industry. Kelley says sales of his hot sauces have grown from about 75,000 bottles a year when he started to more than half a million, with nearly a third of the growth coming during the past two years.
Innovative hot sauces now come spiked with all manner of seasonings, including wasabi, habanero, even pineapple.
Rethinking the old-timers
The big condiment makers are fighting back. Leading ketchup maker Heinz, which has seen sales dip between 2 percent and 3 percent in recent years, has introduced new, bold flavors, including a spicy ketchup made in partnership with Tabasco.
And earlier this year, Kraft sought to build on its earlier success with Grey Poupon by launching three new gourmet varieties, a coarse-ground mustard, a sweet honey mustard and spicy brown mustard.
Smaller producers also are changing the formula of traditional condiments. Redlands, Calif.-based Caley & Cobb offers boldly seasoned mustards with fresh garlic and ginger.
Looking to liven up your own condiment selection? Try some of these flavorful options for adding a bit of zip to your salads, meats, pasta and seafood.
Chutneys such as this not only make a wonderful and traditional accompaniment to Indian food, but also work well as a dipping sauce for tortilla chips and as a glaze for ham or duck.
Makes 1/2 cup
1/4 cup tamarind pulp
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon minced garlic
2 teaspoons cayenne
In a small bowl, combine all ingredients with about 2 tablespoons boiling water. Whisk until the sugar is completely dissolved. Serve warm or let cool and refrigerate in an airtight container. Stir well before using.
This mayonnaise has touches of sweet and heat and is nice with crab cakes and mixed into tuna salad.
Makes 1/2 cup
1/3 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons wasabi paste or powder
2 tablespoons honey
In a small bowl, combine all ingredients and whisk well to combine. Cover and chill until ready to serve.
Spicy peanut sauce traditionally is tossed with warm noodles. It also can be mixed into cold pasta salads or used as a spread on sandwiches with turkey, roast beef and chicken.
Spicy Peanut Sauce
Makes 1 cup
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 cup ground unsalted peanuts or creamy peanut butter
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons tamarind pulp or juice
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup canned unsweetened coconut milk
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and saute, stirring frequently, until soft, about 1 minute. Do not allow garlic to burn. Add remaining ingredients, stir and bring to a boil. Remove the skillet from the heat and allow to cool. Sauce can be covered and refrigerated for up to a week.
— Recipes from Nirmala Narine's "In Nirmala's Kitchen," Lake Isle Press, 2006, $19.95.