These condiment makers are pushing boundaries with their punchy sauces and pickles.

By Nina Friend
June 16, 2021
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Crunchy, spicy chile crisp, tangy achaar, salty fish sauce, and rich gochujang-while these condiments come from longstanding culinary traditions and are rooted in countries with different cultures, a new generation of Asian American makers is collectively redefining what these punchy accompaniments can be. They share a common goal: to bring the quality and authenticity they crave to the American market. They're building a movement that's changing the way ingredients and flavors from Asia are used and perceived, building cross-cultural appreciation and understanding.

"We're creating space for more complexity to exist," said Jing Gao, founder of Fly By Jing, who encourages customers to get creative with her spices and sauces. Gao's Sichuan Chili Crisp pretty much broke the internet in 2018 when people started pouring it over vanilla soft-serve ice cream.

Hers isn't the only condiment to have gone viral; Red Boat fish sauce, Brooklyn Delhi achaar, and Mother-in-Law's gochujang all have ardent followings of their own. Chefs and home cooks alike swear by these products; they're versatile and powerful pantry staples that, with just a dash or a dollop, can transform dishes from every cuisine imaginable.

assortment of condiments
Credit: Photo by Caitlin Bensel / Food Styling by Emily Nabors Hall / Prop Styling by Audrey Davis

Brooklyn Delhi Roasted Garlic Achaar

Whenever Chitra Agrawal traveled to India, she would come back with a suitcase full of achaar, or pickled fruits and vegetables. Agrawal relied on these souvenirs, having found that achaars made in the U.S. were often too salty and packed with preservatives. But in 2014, after running out of achaar before her next trip to India, Agrawal set out to make her own. She started a business, Brooklyn Delhi, selling her achaars at pop-ups and was so successful that today, her products can be found at Whole Foods stores nationwide. "Traditionally, achaars are added to a dish just like a chile sauce for a burst of flavor and heat," Agrawal says. "I purposely developed them to have the intense flavors I grew up loving but with less sodium than traditional achaar recipes so that they could be used in a variety of ways." Her Roasted Garlic Achaar ($12, brooklyndelhi.com) is a perfect example of her philosophy: In it, spices such as black mustard seed, fenugreek, and turmeric play with unrefined cane sugar to add umami to pizza sauces, stir-fries, and sandwich spreads.

Buy It: Brooklyn Delhi Roasted Garlic Achaar, $8 a at amazon.com

Mother-in-Law's Gochujang

Lauryn Chun used to walk down the aisles at Dean & DeLuca in New York City and imagine jars of kimchi being sold there. At the time, kimchi was considered, in Chun's words, "ethnic." She had a dream to break kimchi out of that designation, and in 2009, Chun founded Mother-in-Law's with a mission of educating people about kimchi's versatility and broad appeal. (One of her first accounts was Dean & DeLuca.) In 2014, she launched her line of Mother-in-Law's gochujang, a foundational Korean chile paste that balances sweet rice flour and hot gochugaru chile. "It wasn't easy," Chun recalls. "No one could even say the word." Today, thanks in part to Chun's work, the word is out.

Buy It: Mother-in-Law's Gochujang, $13 at amazon.com

Fly By Jing Sichuan Chili Crisp

In 2018, Chengdu native Jing Gao noticed an online trend in China: People were pouring chile sauce on soft-serve ice cream. It was an unlikely pairing, and people had opinions. "Whether people hate the idea or love the idea, they're compelled to try it," Gao says. When Gao launched Fly By Jing Sichuan Chili Crisp in the U.S., she hosted events at ice cream shops. The combination of sweet, silky, and cold with spicy, crispy, and hot opened people's minds to the idea that chile crisp could have range. "At first, people tried to put us in a box. There was a specific way that you could eat chile sauce, and that was on Chinese food and nothing else." Although Fly By Jing's complex Sichuan flavors are rooted in Gao's hometown and are centuries old, the chile crisp itself is deeply modern. It's bold in both flavor and packaging and adds crunch and kick to all kinds of dishes. "It's made for the way we eat today."

Buy It: Fly By Jing Sichuan Chili Crisp, $18 at amazon.com

Red Boat Fish Sauce

The fish sauce that Cuong Pham grew up with in Vietnam flooded taste buds with umami. It tasted nothing like the milder stuff available in San Jose, California, where he lived shortly after immigrating to the U.S. in 1979, at age 20. It wasn't until 26 years later, on a chance visit to the island of Phú Quôc, known for its fish sauce, that he understood why: Many sauces available in the U.S. market were being diluted. This inspired Pham to shift from his career in tech to bring fish sauce as he remembered it-pure and fragrant, made only from black anchovies and salt-to America. In 2011, Pham expanded a family-run farm on Phú Quôc and started Red Boat Fish Sauce. The fish are fermented for a year to cultivate a rich flavor, and then Red Boat only bottles the first press of sauce to ensure that it's pungent and dark amber in color. In October, Pham is releasing his first cookbook, The Red Boat Fish Sauce Cookbook, filled with dishes from his childhood that put fish sauce front and center.

Buy it: Red Boat Fish Sauce, $12 at amazon.com