Make 2016 the year you embrace harissa, tahini, yuzu kosho, labneh and gochujang. 

By Tina Ujlaki
Updated May 24, 2017
© John Kernick

My dream refrigerator door would have ten shallow shelves to comfortably house condiments in an orderly fashion. But since I only have three, I have to be super discriminating. Here are five of the ingredients I've deemed worthy of the shelf space—all great for revving up your cooking in the coming year—plus some favorite recipes for each to get you started.

I love harissa. On the one hand, it adds a decidedly North African flavor to whatever you put it on. On the other, it’s like a chile-based ketchup with benefits: It’s not too spicy or harsh to be used as a condiment on its own—with grain bowls or grilled vegetables, in egg dishes, on burgers—and it often boasts a panoply of complementary flavors, like caraway, coriander, garlic and even sun-dried tomato, in varying strengths across brands. I especially love the version made by NY Shuk, but there are many delicious iterations available now.

I'm sure you're familiar with this thick and oily paste made from ground sesame seeds that's often the predominant flavor in hummus and baba ghanoush. Tahini is a bit too thick and intense to eat on its own, but you can make an almost-instant killer sauce for chicken, meats and vegetables by simply thinning it with hot water and seasoning it with lemon juice, salt and pepper; or mix it with honey to slather on toast; or blend it with plain thick yogurt, lemon juice and some grated garlic for an instant dip. For years, Joyva was the one and only brand available, but now so many nut- and seed-butter producers are making a version—and black tahini, made from ground black sesame seeds, is becoming readily available as well. I highly recommend the Soom brand, which I learned about from Philly chef and tahini evangelist Michael Solomonov. It's light and mild, and a bit more versatile than some of the darker versions, which can have a deep roasted flavor.

Yuzu Kosho
This intense fermented Japanese seasoning paste is made with fresh hot chiles, citrusy yuzu zest and salt. In spite of the fact that it's fermented, it has a superfresh bite from the yuzu, which tastes like a supercharged Meyer lemon-lime cross plus a fruity bracing heat. There's a version made with green chiles and one with red. Just a little bit rubbed on a steak or under the skin of a chicken leg is all you need, or mix it with mayo and slather it on a fish fillet before grilling. You can use it almost anywhere you would reach for sriracha—on eggs, in soups, on noodles, in stir-frys—but start sparingly, because it's intense.

Labneh (or lebneh or labna) is a slightly tangy, lightly salted, supercreamy yogurt cheese that’s used throughout the Middle East and South Asia. You can easily find recipes to make it, but storebought labneh is so much richer and more luscious than anything I’ve ever been able to make at home. (I don’t say this often about storebought products!) White Moustache's version is a good bet. It has the tang of yogurt with the creaminess and richness of crème fraîche, and it’s more versatile than both: top it with honey, or fruit compote, or jam in the morning, or slather it on a bagel instead of cream cheese; swirl it with scrambled eggs, or smoked fish, or grated cucumber or cooked spinach or other greens for lunch; dollop it on pizza or pasta or stir it into a lamb stew for creaminess for dinner.

Right now I want to eat gochujang on everything. This versatile Korean condiment is made with ground sticky rice, dried red chiles and a miso-like paste, sometimes with a bit of sweetener added. It’s thick and sticky and slightly sweet with a dash of funk from the fermented soybeans, just enough to keep the sweetness in balance. With great flavor but not too much heat, it’s the perfect slather for staples like grilled steak, roast chicken, pork tenderloin, grilled zucchini, hard-cooked eggs, turkey sandwiches and even avocado toasts.