The condiment tray or condiment caddy on the tables at Asian street food stalls, market tables, modest eateries, and humble restaurants is there for a reason. It’s DIY seasoning. Don’t worry, you’re not going to upset the chef by sprinkling chilli flakes on your noodles or squirting Sriracha into your soup. In fact, in Asia, you’re meant to customise your dish.
I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been footpath feasting at a street food stall in Southeast 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.
The Condiment Tray, Condiment Caddy and DIY Seasoning
In Asia, that ubiquitous stainless steel condiment tray or lurid-coloured plastic condiment caddy on the table, holding a collection of bottles, glass jars and tubs of soy sauces, fish sauce, vinegars, pickles, sugar, pepper, spices, garlic cloves, ginger slices, and chilli jams, powder, flakes, and fresh chilli peppers, is there for a reason – it’s do-it-yourself (DIY) seasoning.
Along with a dish of lime wedges and perhaps a basket of fragrant fresh herbs, the condiment tray contents 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 and are eating like a local.
Forgive me for the generalisations, but I often forget that for many ‘Western’ culinary cultures, 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 generalisations), there is probably little more than salt and pepper, but increasingly neither.
When I was growing up in Australia, there was always a bottle of tomato sauce on my Australian grandmother’s table. At my Russian grandmother’s, a tub of sour cream and a jar of homemade gherkins.
But there is generally little else on a ‘Western’ dining table and asking a host for chilli sauce, fish sauce, soy sauce, or Sriracha sauce to douse on the dish set in front of you would certainly raise eyebrows and probably won’t score you a further dinner invitation.
In many good restaurants, especially the very finest fine diners, salt and pepper are not even placed on tables these days. The most 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 plate 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 Cambodia to Korea, Thailand to India, and everything in between, along with the Middle East and North Africa, from the Arabian Peninsula across to Egypt and 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 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 tiny plastic blue stools, screwing up their nose and shifting their noodles around on their plates with their forks.
The girls appeared to have just arrived from the airport so this could very well have been their first meal in Vietnam. They clearly weren’t used to how to eat in Southeast 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, and knew to do so from years of experience, and, at this particular stall on this cool Hanoi night, by 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. If one wasn’t, he’d swap 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 chilli jam, and a squeeze of lemon. He didn’t even try the dish first. He mixed it all up with his chopsticks, 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 finished, he took out a perfectly pressed white handkerchief from his top pocket and dabbed at his mouth.
We watched the man 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 local diners often do in Vietnam and Thailand. After tasting the 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 that evening, 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?” Oh, but of course it is!
We 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 well developed palates (we’d like to think we do too), but what they 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 once did with Chef David Thompson he called Cambodian a “gentler cuisine” and it’s true to a certain extent), we find we are continually reaching for condiments, especially for the chilli.
In Cambodia, like Thailand, the portable condiment tray will generally hold chilli flakes, chilli oil jam, and perhaps some vinegar. In Thailand, it’s generally red chillies and pickled garlic, whereas in Cambodia it might be green chillies and 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 two of soy sauces (light and dark), fish sauce, and perhaps a chilli sauce like Sriracha on the table.
While not condiments as such, in Vietnam and Cambodia, 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 (or fish leaf), 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 condiment tray is on the table for a reason and you’re welcome to use the condiments to customise your dish to your liking, especially if you believe something to be “under-seasoned”.
Don’t ever consider a street food dish in Asia, especially South East Asia, complete when it’s served.
Some dishes are made to be enhanced – pho, congee, cao lau, com ga, kuy teav, kway teow, 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.
Published 15 December 2013; Updated 26 May 2023