Some Pungent Condiments from Southeast Asia to Try

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Close-up view of seven white bowls containing different Southeast Asian condiments on a wooden table.
Image: © Mikhail Valeev

The cuisine of most tropical countries includes the extensive use of herbs and spices, and condiments that are more flavorful – some would say more pungent – than in other countries. In particular, Southeast Asia has many variations of condiments that are used in or served with local dishes that are quite unique even in the tropical world.

Some of these condiments can pack quite a wallop so it’s worth knowing what’s in them if you’re traveling in Southeast Asia and keen to try local foods complete with the condiments that are usually served with them.

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Of course, the flavor and taste of these condiments may vary between different regions of the country in which the condiments originate, so the descriptions below must be read knowing that such regional variations exist. But the basic ingredients are usually the same.

Condiments are served to help enhance and deepen the flavor of dishes, but sometimes they can overpower the flavor of the food if used too heavily. So, when trying something new, go easy on the condiments until you have determined the extent to which the addition of condiments will enhance the taste of the dish for you.

Sriracha

Sriracha, one of the more well-known condiments around the tropical world, is a type of hot chili sauce that originates from Thailand. It’s typically made from a paste of chili peppers, pickled garlic, distilled vinegar, sugar, and salt.

This condiment came into existence in the 1940s when a woman named Thanom Chakkapak in the village of Si Racha started serving a variation of this sauce to her customers. Many believed that the sauce was an innovation from the garlic and chili sauces that came from Cantonese immigrants who settled down in the village in the early 1900s.

Sriracha squirted on top on a bowl of Vietnamese phó noodles.
Sriracha on Vietnamese phó noodles. Image: goomba478

The condiment created by Thanom Chakkapak was a hit in the village, as her customers seemingly couldn’t get enough of it. Eventually, she started selling the condiment after being urged by family and friends, and she called it Sriraja Panich. Fast forward to today, and the condiment is enjoying immense popularity all around the tropical world.

In Thailand, people often use this condiment as a dipping sauce when eating seafood dishes and omelets. Vietnamese cuisine incorporates this product as a condiment for their phó and fried noodles and as a dipping sauce for spring rolls.

Sambal

Typically made from chili peppers, shrimp paste, garlic, ginger, shallots or scallions, coconut or palm sugar, and lime juice – and sometimes tomatoes and lemongrass – this this sauce or paste is one of the most commonly used condiments in Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei.

Sambal is a collective term for the many varieties of this spicy condiment. It is said that there are over 300 varieties around the tropical world, with Indonesia having more than 200 because that’s where sambal originated back in the 16th century.

A serving of sambal on a white plate next to a dish of Indonesian ayam goreng.
Sambal on the side of a dish of ayam goreng. Image: Diana Yudianto

Funnily enough, the chili peppers needed to create this condiment are not indigenous to Indonesia. Instead, they came from Central and South America and were brought to Asia by Spanish and Portuguese explorers and traders on their sailing ships.

Over time, the use of this condiment spread to nearby regions and countries, with many adopting it into their cuisine until it became a staple in most Southeast Asian households. Today, sambal pairs with lots of different meats and dishes from different cuisines.

Budu

This condiment is a traditional sauce that hails from Malaysia and is commonly used in southern Thailand as well. Made from fermented anchovies, it adds flavor to a dish and goes well with fish, rice, and raw vegetables.

It shares a lot of similarities with other regions’ fermented fish sauces. In the Philippines, they call it patis, while in Myanmar, it goes by the name ngapi. Vietnam’s version of this fish sauce is called nước mắm which translated to English simply means ‘salted fish sauce’.

A bowl of budu condiment next to fried fish on a white table
Budu accompanying a fried fish dish. Image: © Izz Hazel

Typically, these sauces are made by mixing anchovies and salt in a large pot and allowing the brew to ferment for 4-6 months and sometimes even longer. The longer it ferments, the stronger its taste becomes.

Budu is high in protein and uric acid, and as such, people with gout should stay clear of it. It is also said that it has potential as an anti-cancer agent and as brain food due to the nature of its ingredients and the high amount of nutrients that it contains.

Prahok

Whilst also using fermented fish, this condiment from Cambodia looks very different to budu. It involves placing crushed river fish, usually snakeheads, into a jar and adding some salt before letting it ferment for at least three weeks.

The condiment originated from preserving fish during months of abundance, allowing people to have sufficient food stock during the months when food was harder to come by. Because of its strong saltiness and intense fishy flavor, many people use this in creating soups and sauces.

Fresh cut raw vegetables around a small bowl of prahok dip on a decorative platter.
Fresh cut raw vegetables with a prahok dip. Image: © Ly Aun

Additionally, due to its somewhat overpowering and distinct smell, people gave it the nickname ‘Cambodian cheese’. Because of its strong flavor, people often eat this as a main course, along with steamed rice and a variety of vegetables. This dish also bears a resemblance to another fermented fish paste, bagoong, that hails from the Philippines.

Another way to eat this condiment is by mixing it with either beef or pork, then sautéing it in a pan before adding some chilis. You can also use it as a dip for fresh raw vegetables, like cucumbers, carrots and beans.

Bawang Goreng

This is a popular condiment in Indonesia, often used as a garnish or topping over rice and other dishes. It’s made of thinly sliced shallots that are deep-fried until golden brown and crispy.

It is often sprinkled on top of a traditional salad called gado-gado and on a traditional soup known as soto. The condiment also serves as a garnish for a variety of dishes like bakso, bubur ayam, and semur. Its bitter yet savory flavor goes well with steamed rice.

Serundeng

Another traditional condiment from Indonesia is serundeng, of which the main ingredient is roasted coconut. Other ingredients include garlic, onions, turmeric, lime, tamarind, chili peppers, coriander, bay leaves, and sugar. It’s used either a garnish to add flavor to a dish or cooked with the dish itself to impart its flavor.

Depending on the recipe variant, the taste of this condiment can change greatly. It can become either sweet or hot and spicy, depending on the ratio of ingredients used to create it. You can also add roasted peanuts to the condiment for a different flavor and texture.

Banana Ketchup

When someone says ketchup, the first thing that comes to mind is a condiment made from tomatoes. However, there’s another kind of ketchup commonly found in Southeast Asia: banana ketchup. Whilst not as pungent as the condiments described above, it’s well up on the popularity list.

As you can no doubt guess, instead of tomatoes, this type of ketchup comes from bananas. However, if you compare the two, there’s almost no difference at all when it comes to both appearance and taste, but banana ketchup is a tad sweeter than tomato ketchup, with some even describing it as having a hint of pepperiness.

Bottles of banana ketchup on the shelves of a Philippines supermarket.
Banana ketchup on the shelves of a Philippines supermarket.

The exact origins of how this condiment came to be are relatively hazy. However, many believe that during World War II, American soldiers brought tomato ketchup to the Philippines.

At the time, the locals grew to love this condiment, but it was difficult to recreate because tomatoes were not a popular crop to grow in the country.

In response to a shortage of tomato ketchup, a Filipino food created the first banana ketchup by combining mashed bananas, vinegar, spices, and a little bit of red dye to recreate the iconic ketchup. In 1942, the country started producing banana ketchup commercially, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The condiment is typically used in making traditional Filipino sweet spaghetti and as a condiment for eggplant omelets, burgers, fries, chicken skewers, and grilled fish, and can be found on supermarket shelves in many other Southeast Asian countries.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. I noticed that a lot of countries have similar salty and sour condiments on the table. Very nice article. Keep up the good work!

  2. Hi, member of my family. I just wanted to say how fantastic this article is—it’s nicely written and has nearly all of the important details. I hope to see more content similar to this one.

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