Of all the condiments available to Charlestonians in the early 19th century, it’s possible none were adored as ardently as Worcestershire sauce. But with the imposition of the Union blockade, locals’ favorite Worcestershire sauce — Lea & Perrins, manufactured in Worcestershire County, England — became suddenly unavailable. It was up to the city’s home cooks to puzzle out recipe hacks, much as eaters today try to conjure Red Lobster cheddar biscuits and Olive Garden alfredo sauce in their kitchens.
Building a slightly spicy sauce on an anchovy base is a custom that dates back to the Roman era, when garum figured into almost every cooked dish. The fermented fish sauce must have been exceptionally delicious, since it “had a strong smell, which no authors praise,” Andrew Dalby wrote tactfully in “Food in the Ancient World from A to Z.”
Still, there’s no evidence of Western entrepreneurs bottling an anchovy, onion and pepper-dominated sauce for commercial sale prior to the 1830s.
According to company folklore, Lord Sandys commissioned druggists John Lea and William Perrins to replicate a sauce he’d sampled in India. Everyone was unsatisfied with the attempt, so the men cellared the jars. While it’s not clear from Lea & Perrins’ official history what impelled the pair to taste the rejected sauce a few years later, they discovered the “the aging process had turned it into a delicious, savory sauce.”
Culinary historians have lately questioned the sauce’s Indian antecedents (and the existence of Lord Sandys), but it’s hard to argue with Lea & Perrins’ success. A New Yorker started importing the sauce in 1839, and within a few years was doing a steady business in the condiment. According to food historian David Shields, the sauce reached Charleston by 1843.
“(It) supplied that earthy quality that 21st-century culinarians call umami,” he writes in a short history of the sauce that quickly riveted Charleston. “This is not so much an issue with meat, which has its own quality of umami. It is more needful for fish and seafood.”
Coastal Southerners, already accustomed to the flavors of peppers and tamarind, warmly welcomed Worcestershire. “It supplied an astringent, salty bass note that harmonized with the sweet and caramel dimensions that had come into dishes,” Shields writes of the period characterized by the advent of tomatoes, sherry and roux. “By 1860, it was standard in red chowders; crab stews; shrimp gravies; shrimp pie; and the entire range of deviled seafood dishes.”
Once Charlestonians were denied their favorite sauce, they went into a frenzy trying to re-create it. They didn’t connect the sauce’s appealing funk to fermented anchovies: They suspected ginger was most likely the secret ingredient. The recipe provided to The Charleston Mercury in 1863 called for 2 tablespoons worth, along with tomatoes, mace, pepper, salt, cloves and cayenne.
When Xiao Bao Biscuit’s Joshua Walker received the recipe, he immediately suspected something was amiss. “I was very skeptical from the beginning, because there’s no anchovies,” he says. “I used fresh ginger, toasted clove and toasted peppercorns, but I knew it was missing something.”
Walker ended up adding sauteed ginger and chilis to the mix, as well as a tamarind water with sugar and white vinegar.
“All of the recipes I’ve been reading have a tamarind component,” Walker says. “You really need that sour note.”
The resulting sauce was thematically in line with many of the dishes Walker serves at Xiao Bao. “Now I think of it as an English fish sauce,” he says, alluding to Worcestershire’s funk and tang.
Because he’s spent three years immersed in Asian cooking, Walker says he isn’t certain exactly how Worcestershire is supposed to be used: He vaguely remembers seeing it spilled on burgers. But he ventures that the umami-rich condiment could enhance a range of foods.
“It’s like drenching everything in hot sauce,” he says.