I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been footpath feasting at a street food stall in South East Asia and overheard a conversation that went something like this: “This soup tastes bland.” “I agree. I don’t get it.” Yet at no point did either person reach for the condiment tray.
In Asia, that ubiquitous plastic or stainless steel condiment tray or condiment caddy on the table, holding a collection of bottles, tubs and jars of soy sauces, fish sauce, vinegars, pickles, sugar, pepper, spices, garlic cloves, ginger slices, and chili jams, powder, flakes, and fresh chili peppers, is there for a reason – it’s DIY seasoning.
Along with a dish of lime wedges and perhaps a plate or basket of fragrant fresh herbs, the condiments in that caddy or that tray are intended for use with whatever you’re eating. The cook won’t mind – in fact, she or he will probably smile, pleased to see you have some local know-how.
I often forget that for ‘Western’ people (and I do hate to generalize and put us all under the same umbrella, but here goes), it’s considered an insult to the cook or chef if a guest or diner wants to adjust the taste of a dish by adding seasoning. On the dining tables of most homes in Western countries (and, again, forgive the generalizations), there is little more than salt and pepper, but increasingly neither.
Maybe some mayonnaise or salad dressing for a casual lunch. Olive oil and Parmigiano Reggiano in Italy. HP Sauce in the UK. Tomato sauce in Australia. Ketchup in the US. Mustard in France. At my Russian grandmother’s home there was always a tub of sour cream and a jar of homemade gherkins.
But there is generally little else on a Western dinner table and asking a host for chili, fish sauce, soy, and fresh herbs to add to the clear broth set in front of you would certainly raise eyebrows and probably won’t score you a further dinner invitation.
In many restaurants, especially the very finest, salt and pepper aren’t even placed on tables these days. The most creative and accomplished chefs have worked hard to balance the ingredients and flavours of dishes when developing their recipes. If it’s a degustation menu, the chef has also taken into account the progression of each dish and how the flow from one to another affects the taste buds.
To change the flavour profile of a dish by adding your own seasoning, and disrupting the sequence of a carefully constructed experience, would be considered an affront to the chef.
Yet in most countries in Asia, everywhere from Korea to India and in between, and in the Middle East as well, from Afghanistan and the Arabian Peninsula across to Morocco, adding some sort of seasoning or even a whole gamut of condiments is not only acceptable, it’s expected and encouraged.
There’s nothing wrong at all with adding something to your dish if you desire a little more heat, spice, sourness, saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, tanginess, and even umami – in many parts of Asia, one of those glass jars on the table will probably contain MSG.
One night in Hanoi at a street food stall in the old town, we watched two 20-something Asian-American girls, sitting beside us at a teensy plastic red table on miniscule plastic blue stools, screwing up their nose and moving their noodles around on their plates with their forks.
The girls might have just arrived from the airport and this could have been their first meal in Vietnam. Regardless, only their features gave away their heritage, because they clearly didn’t know how to eat in Asia.
Neither girl was very enthusiastic about her dish – dishes we were already tucking into and loved. Dishes that we had been encouraged to embellish by experience and watching a regular customer, an elderly gentleman at another table. The moment the dapper old man in plaid jacket and beret sat down on his stool, he took the chopsticks out of the paper packet and readied the condiments in front of him, checking each bottle and jar was full, and if one wasn’t swapping it with another from the next little table.
As soon as the plate was set in front of him, he set to work – a splash of fish sauce, another of soy, a spoonful of chili jam, and a squeeze of lemon. He didn’t even try the dish first. Then he combined it all with his chopsticks and put his head down close to the plate, and began to shovel the noodles into his mouth, not looking up until he was done. When he was, he took out a perfectly pressed white handkerchief from his top pocket and dabbed at his mouth.
We watched him intently, as we watch any local diners the first time we eat a dish we’re unfamiliar with – if they haven’t already gestured to show us what to add of their own accord, as they often do in Vietnam and Thailand – and after tasting those noodles we immediately followed suit.
On another day at one of Hanoi’s most revered pho establishments, we watched table after table of locals enhance their dishes after only a cursory glance at the broth steaming in front of them. With Vietnamese and much of South East Asian street food, it is as if the cooks give you a blank canvas and you add the condiments to your heart’s content to complete the dish.
But at the Hanoi noodle stall, however, the American girls were obviously oblivious to how we and the old gentleman opposite were eating the rich noodle dish that was all the more delicious because of our additions.
The girl on my side looked up to her friend and, crinkling up her nose again, said: “The chef hasn’t quite got there with this dish.” Wrinkling her face right back at her pal, her friend responded in agreement. “It’s under-seasoned, don’t you think?” Of course it is!
I blame cooking competition shows like MasterChef, IronChef and My Kitchen Rules, where entrants are required to create dishes that are finished, judged by their perfection of form, and are commonly scored down if what’s on their plate isn’t faultless.
How many times have we heard John Torode, Gordon Ramsay or Matt Preston tell a contestant their dishes are under-seasoned? The chefs and food critics obviously have the most well developed palates (we’d like to think we do too) but what they and their shows don’t take into account is that we all have different taste.
I like my food fiery. I don’t do bland. I have a very high tolerance to heat and, along with Terence, who is an expert in the art of seasoning and likes his salt and spices, we probably add more condiments to our dishes than the average diner. Terence has been known to turn many a clear soup red.
In Cambodia, where the cuisine lacks the intensity of, say, Thai cuisine (in an interview I recently did with Chef David Thompson he called Cambodian a “gentler cuisine” and I like that), we find we are continually reaching for condiments, especially for the chili.
In Cambodia, like Thailand, the portable condiment tray will generally hold chili flakes or chili jam (or relish), fish sauce, and something like vinegar. In Thailand, it’s generally red chilis and garlic, whereas in Cambodia it might be green chilis or even pickled cucumber or daikon and carrot. The sugar that is commonplace in Thailand doesn’t always appear in Cambodia, but in both countries, as in Vietnam, there will generally be an additional bottle or three of soy sauces (light and dark), fish sauce, and perhaps a chili sauce like Sriracha on the table.
While not strictly classified as condiments, in Vietnam, there will often be the added bonus of a basket or plate of fresh aromatic herbs and greens that might include any combination of mint, Vietnamese mint, Thai basil, holy basil, coriander, dill, saw tooth herb, fish herb, perilla leaves, bean sprouts, and lettuce, that if served with your dish you should sprinkle on top and can continue to add as liberally as you like throughout your meal.
The condiments are on the table for a reason and you’re welcome to use them to customize your dish to your liking, especially if you believe it to be ‘under-seasoned’. Don’t ever consider a street food dish in Asia, especially South East Asia, complete. Some dishes are made to be enhanced – pho, congee, cao lau, com ga (and in the Middle East, foul), just to name a few. But how much flavour you add is up to you.
Just watch what the locals do and add a little of each – you can always add more, but you can never take something away. Then again, you don’t have to add anything if you don’t want to. And therein lies the beauty of the condiment tray and DIY seasoning.
Just don’t call something bland without understanding how locals embellish a dish. Otherwise, you may as well head right back to the airport. Or eat at McDonalds.