Cover Photo: Christie At Home

From the Philippines to Korea, we've rounded up seven of Asia's most iconic condiments you should consistently stock in your pantry for a feast of flavours.

Though the pandemic continues to prevent international travel, our kitchens remain hubs of creativity that invite gastronomic journeys through different cuisines. Take your tastebuds on a delicious trip through the Philippines, Korea, Hong Kong, and more with these seven staple Asian condiments, and continue reading to discover some great recipes that showcase these sauces.

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1. XO Sauce

Despite its name, this flavourful umami condiment does not actually have any cognac - however, XO sauce does represent a similar prestige, rich with dried shrimp and scallop, aged salted Jinhua ham, as well as alliums and chilli for added flavour. Originating in Hong Kong, the textured concoction is often added to noodle and rice dishes to achieve a deeper flavour, or used as a tableside condiment to accompany various meals like dim sum.

Learn how to make your own XO sauce here, and use it in this XO noodles with shrimp recipe for a delicious stir-fry dinner.

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Photo: The Woks of Life
Above Photo: The Woks of Life

2. Bagoong

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Photo: Ang Sarap
Above Photo: Ang Sarap

Make your way some kilometres down and a couple more eastward to find another dried seafood-based condiment: bagoong. Found throughout the Philippine archipelago (with a number of regional variants), bagoong is made with fermented fish or shrimp, boasting a pungent, recognisable, and divisive aroma. The condiment is likewise potent in flavour: umami, salty, and somewhat sweet, much like XO sauce, though not always spicy. The sauteed savoury paste is often paired with the peanut-based oxtail stew kare-kare; or swiped upon firm, sour green mangoes or juicy, crisp singkamas (jicama).

Related: What Is Bagoong? 

Check out this recipe for binagoongan baboy sa gata, a decadent pork belly dish cooked in bagoong and coconut milk, or try out this mushroom bagoong for a vegan alternative to the seafood condiment.

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3. Sambal

If you’ve ever travelled through Indonesia, Malaysia, or Singapore, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with sambal: the red-hot chilli sauce popularly used in these countries’ cuisines. However, there are actually a wide variety of distinct chilli sauces donning the sambal name, each unique in its ingredients, production process, and history. The Indonesian sambal oelek is perhaps the most known and most basic, traditionally prepared simply by grinding chilis and salt in an ulek - an Indonesian kitchen tool similar to a mortar and pestle, hence the condiment’s name.

For a sambal oelek perfect for the beloved mee goreng, check out this recipe; for the funkier sambal belacan that uses the eponymous fermented fish paste, check out this 10-minute how-to video.

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4. Gochujang

Another Asian condiment that celebrates the bold marriage of fermentation and chilli is gochujang, the delicious, often plant-based Korean paste made with gochugaru (powdered chilli powder), fermented soybeans, and glutinous rice. The thick, sticky condiment is vibrant in both colour and flavour, with a bright red hue and a spicy-sweet-savoury profile. Gochujang is often incorporated into a sauce for bibimbap, a comforting Korean rice bowl dish; and mixed into the spicy stew for tteokbokki, a popular street food staple made with fish cakes and rice cakes.

Learn how to make your own gochujang here, and explore the versatility of the condiment with this simple slow roasted-gochujang chicken recipe.

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5. Nước Chấm

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Photo: Drive Me Hungry
Above Photo: Drive Me Hungry

Tangy, salty, with just the right amount of spice, nước chấm plays a central role in a variety of refreshing Vietnamese dishes like gỏi cuốn (fresh rice paper rolls) and bún (a vermicelli salad). The light sauce elegantly balances the acidity from lime and vinegar, sweetness from sugar (often palm sugar), the kick of fresh birds-eye chilli, as well as the saltiness and biting umami of fish sauce.

Cook up some bun ga nuon (vermicelli with lemongrass chicken) and top it off with some homemade nước chấm for a healthy yet filling and flavourful meal.

6. Nam Chim Kai

Thai sweet chilli sauce or nam chim kai (also spelled nam jim kai) is the perfect dipping sauce for Thailand’s mouthwatering fried dishes, be it gai haw bai toey (pandan chicken), poh pia tod (fried spring rolls), or tod mun pla (fish cakes). A delicious blend of sweet, spice, and sour, the syrupy sauce beautifully clings onto whatever you dip through it, coating each bite with the spirited flavours resonant of Thailand’s cuisine.

Make your own nam chim kai with this recipe (which uses sambal oelek for added heat) and enjoy it with some of these traditional Thai spring rolls.

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Photo: Whisk Affair
Above Photo: Whisk Affair

7. Oyster Sauce

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Photo: Woks of Life
Above Photo: Woks of Life

Though often confused with Hoisin sauce - after all, both are dark brown, thick, and commonly feature in Cantonese cuisine - oyster sauce is actually a different condiment altogether. As the name suggests, the syrupy sauce is made from oyster extract. However, through caramelisation and the addition of salt and sugar, the end-product is far from fishy, offering an earthy and sweet flavour profile instead. The luscious sauce is a popular addition to Chinese stir-fries and barbecue marinades, but in its simplest form, it is also commonly drizzled upon a bed of steamed vegetables.

For an effortless weeknight recipe that showcases the depth of this delicious condiment, check out this chicken stir fry. Looking for a plant-based alternative? Here’s one made vegan with mushroom powder as its base.

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