A few years ago, Jane Stern, half of the "Roadfood" writing duo with former husband Michael, told me she simply doesn't like condiments.
I was interviewing them about their 2006 book, "Two for the Road," and they joked about the irony of the cover, which shows a mustard bottle and a ketchup bottle standing side by side, an image that Jane finds as repulsive in print as she does on a diner's counter.
The thought mystified me, because I'm a condiment person. What french fry can't be improved by great ketchup, which author Andrew F. Smith calls "America's national condiment?"
Mostly, though, it's Asian condiments that have me hooked. Specifically, their combination of hot, sour, salty and sweet. Lately, whenever I thumb through another international cookbook, I find myself pausing most often not at recipes for soups or entrees or desserts but at the ones for relishes, chutneys and sauces -- preferably spicy and able to keep for a few weeks or longer in my fridge. They represent the key to a quick dinner on those nights when I can't bring myself to follow an actual recipe but want something more interesting than a piece of roasted fish or stir-fried vegetables.
Of course, I collect store-bought condiments galore.
Sriracha, oyster sauce, bean sauce, double-dark soy sauce, mushroom-flavored soy sauce, two kinds of kimchi, along with Tabasco, piri-piri, Pickapeppa and the like, plus smoky salsas in green, brown and red. They all crowd my refrigerator door and shelves. Some of them are fairly easy to come by, but I also like to make my own because I can play with the balance and the heat.
When a colleague brought me a fantastic chili-lemon pickle from India, I was so hooked I immediately began to panic about what I would possibly do when it ran out. Fly to India? As tempting as that is, I instead started scouting for recipes. Most of the sensible-looking ones called for a curing-pickling time of 30 days or more.
I required instant gratification, so I e-mailed chef K.N. Vinod of Indique and other Washington restaurants, and he came through in a flash with a scaled-down version of one of his favorites.
After letting lemon pieces sit in vinegar and salt for a day, I made a quick trip to an Indian market for the few spices I didn't have, then started cooking, letting the mixture bubble a little longer than Vinod suggested to further tenderize the lemon.
It was pretty delectable right out of the pot: sharp, spicy and beautiful, with a brick-colored sauce surrounding the bright lemon. The next day it had deepened in flavor and become more complex, and the next even more so. This pickle is not the same as the one my friend brought me. But that's not a bad thing; it has punched up several meals since I made it, with many more to come.
For my second condiment, I was drawn to a simple miso paste in Harumi Kurihara's "Everyday Harumi." I know firsthand how impeccable her taste is, and I'm a miso fan, loving to mash it with butter into a sweet potato, shake it into various easy salad dressings and stir it into soups. But its pungency can be a little difficult to manage, so I was curious about Kurihara's method of combining it with mirin, sake and sugar for something mellower.
In a flash, I had my ready-made sweet potato topping that, it turns out, also can be brushed on a quickly steamed halibut or salmon fillet.
Finally, the sweet chili sambal in Jaden Hair's "The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook" called out to me: With its tamarind and mild chili peppers (or, in my interpretation, a mix of sweet and spicy ones), I imagined it would be like an intense barbecue sauce.
In an e-mail exchange, Hair said that even though she is married with children, she has her cooking-for-one moments, too: "ahem, late night/early morning kitchen raid." And in those moments, "it's about being efficient (otherwise I get caught) -- so a 5-minute simple grilled fish fillet, 3-minute clam steam or even just a 2-minute reheating of leftover rice gets a 20-second makeover with a choice condiment."
In her book, she writes that she's not a "blow-off-your-tongue" fan, so her sambal is on the subdued side.
I preferred to kick it up a notch. After making my adaptation, I tossed in a teaspoon or so of cayenne pepper. The appeal was immediate: There's no tomato in the sambal at all, but frankly it tastes like the best ketchup ever.