Sometimes called Chinese barbecue sauce, this umami-packed condiment is a traditional meat glaze. Chef Dan Jacobs of DanDan in Milwaukee uses it to perk up wonton soup, while in Philadelphia, Serpico chef Peter Serpico mixes it with beer, mustard, and cider vinegar to marinate and baste ribs.
A must for Middle Eastern cooking, this spice blend often includes sesame, sumac, marjoram, and thyme. Za’atar typically dusts dips and pitas, but try it on buttered toast, like Caitlin McMillan, chef at Goldie in Philly, does, or in a simple cucumber salad, as Molly Yeh of Girl Meets Farm likes it.
This sesame seed paste (think Middle Eastern peanut butter) swings sweet or savory. Add tahini to caramelized onions to top burgers, says chef Ana Sortun of Oleana in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Or take a cue from Oleana’s pastry chef, Maura Kilpatrick, and stir it into hot chocolate or chocolate sauce.
Fiery North African harissa is a paste made of chiles, garlic, and spices. Chef Einat Admony of New York City’s Kish-Kash tosses it with honey, lemon, and olive oil for a zippy chicken-wing glaze. Alissa Wagner, chef at Dimes in New York, combines it with crushed tomatoes and lemon to top poached eggs.
This dried seaweed comes in many forms in Japan, but stores in the United States usually carry sheets for sushi. Finely grind pieces with salt for a popcorn topper, say chefs Jess Benefield and Trey Burnette of the Green Pheasant in Nashville. Or mix some with wasabi and oil to brush on grilled veggies.
Spicy-yet-sweet gochujang is a staple in Korean cooking. The sticky red chile paste pumps up everything from barbecued beef to stews. Whisk some gochujang with honey and butter, then melt it on steaks, says Edward Lee, chef at 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Kentucky.
Tropical, rich, and wildly versatile, this “milk” is simply shredded coconut blended with water. When making rice or oatmeal, Hetty McKinnon, author of Family: New Vegetarian Comfort Food to Nourish Every Day, swaps in coconut milk for some of the cooking water.
Thai Curry Paste
This aromatic import comes in a range of colors from mild green to spicy red. It’s often simmered with coconut milk for creamy curries, but chefs Ann Redding and Matt Danzer of Uncle Boons in New York City whisk some green curry paste into vinaigrettes for new spins on salad.
Anchovies, salt, and time create this funky stuff that flavors everything from pad thai to pho. Thai Dang, chef at HaiSous in Chicago, uses fish sauce to add a hint of umami to barbecue sauce and chicken brine. And, no, it won’t make your chicken taste fishy.
Chipotle Peppers in Adobo Sauce
This Mexican pantry staple is used for both the intense chipotles (smoked jalapeños) and the tangy tomato sauce that they’re canned in. Anastacia Quiñones, chef at José in Dallas, purees both, stirs them into melted butter, and then brushes the sauce on grilled shrimp.
Aging intensifies the flavor and color (which varies from mellow white to robust red) of this Japanese fermented soybean paste. Chef Shuai Wang of the soon-to-open Jackrabbit Filly in Charleston, South Carolina, blends white miso with butter and maple syrup to top cornbread.
These fermented grocery finds are tasty and gut-healthy.
Bubbies Spicy Kosher Dills ($7.99 for a 33-ounce jar)
The cool crunch of these cukes cuts the heat, but dig deeper into the jar to fish out the spicy peppers. Because this mix is naturally fermented, it packs an effervescent tang and a probiotic punch. —Kelsie Schrader, editorial assistant
Olympia Provisions Saucisson Sec ($12 for 4.5 ounces)
I love the black pepper and garlic in this melt-in-your-mouth sausage. It’s got an extra boost of umami thanks to European-style dry curing, a type of fermentation. Slice it thinly to make it last. —Vanessa Garcia, associate photo editor
Noosa Coconut Yoghurt ($1.19 for 4 ounces)
Noosa is thicker and creamier than most yogurts and not as tart. Real coconut cream makes every spoonful taste like you’re indulging in a tropical crème brûlée. —Hillary Maglin, editorial intern
Jongga Spicy Kimchi Pouch ($2.10 for 2.8 ounces)
Real talk: Kimchi is yummy but stinky. The aroma wafts from my lunch box—not how I like to be remembered on the subway. Now I’m set with these single-serve pouches. —Aliza Gans, associate food editor