Condiments often make a dish in Southeast Asia, rather than being an optional extra. Sauces and toppings are kept in small jars and bottles on each table, or at a communal station, so that customers can personalise their meal. What’s on offer will reflect the food served, because each dish has certain condiments that are traditionally added to it. Often these are considered so essential that they will come out from the kitchen as part of your meal (for example, the chilli sauce with your Hainanese chicken rice, or the dipping sauce for rice paper rolls) but below is a guide to some of the most common things you might expect to already see on your table, and what to do with them.
Dry-roasted chilli powder: known as prik pon, you’ll find this in the condiment caddy at most Thai food stalls and restaurants along with the next four items on the list. It adds a deep spice to soups and noodle dishes, such as pad Thai.
Fish sauce: this is the salt of the Thai table, and it’s often found in the form of nam pla prik, a condiment of chopped Thai chillies in fish sauce. It lends a savoury, umami flavour to dishes, and is commonly eaten with fried rice. In Vietnam, fish sauce or nuoc mam is just as prominent – it features in nuoc mam cham, a dipping sauce served with just about everything and even eaten on plain rice.
Sugar: nam tam sai, or white sugar is another favourite Thai seasoning used to balance the spicy and sour elements of soups and noodles.
Vinegared chillies: as Leela Punyaratabandhu describes on her blog, She Simmers, this particular condiment is seen two ways in Thailand: as vinegar with chillies, or chillies in vinegar, and your view determines how you use it. Some put the emphasis on the vinegar, which absorbs the heat of the red chillies, while others prefer the punch of the chillies that have soaked up the vinegar. It’s commonly used to add a spicy/sour flavour profile in noodle dishes with a Chinese influence, such as pad see ew. You’ll also find pickled jalapenos in Malaysia and Vietnam, which tend to be milder, and a fiery red pickled chilli in Vietnam with less liquid than its Thai counterpart.
Chilli sauces, pastes and sambals: probably the most common condiment across Southeast Asia, there are countless variations on chilli sauce, from thin and vinegary to sweet and jam-like. Sriracha originated in Thailand, from the east coast city of the same name, and is commonly used there on omelettes or other fried items. Vietnam’s answer to Sriracha is used as a condiment for pho, and a chilli garlic sauce known as tuong ot toi is widely loved. Small jars of chilli pastes or jams are also common, such as Thailand’s nam prik pao, a spicy, smoky paste that can be added to any dish. In Indonesia and Malaysia, fiery sambals are a staple, with variations from region to region. Spoon some into your laksa or onto your ayam goreng (fried chicken) and coconut rice.
Fresh chillies: across Southeast Asia, you’ll often find bowls of small, fiery whole chillies on tables – take a nibble between mouthfuls for a kick of fresh heat.
White pepper: in Saigon, white pepper is often added to pho broth and through noodle dishes, and it’s found on the tables of Chinese-influenced restaurants in other parts of Southeast Asia. Here's a recipe for a white pepper broth with pork terrine and glass vermicelli.
Hoisin: No pho stall is complete without a bottle of hoisin. Squeeze it into a small sauce bowl with chilli sauce and dip your meat into it, rather than adding it to the broth.
Herbs: Often your dish will come with a side of herbs and fresh salad ingredients, and in Vietnam this is known as the table salad. The ingredients will vary depending on the dish being served, but you might tear off some leaves and add them to your soup, or use them to wrap up pieces of meat and dip it in sauce.
Soy sauce: Chinese-influenced dishes often call for soy sauce on tables, as well as black vinegar, a common accompaniment for dumplings.
Maggi seasoning: Vietnam’s answer to soy sauce, this seasoning made by Nestlé is ubiquitous in Vietnam, used in everything from banh mi thit to stir fries and soups.
Limes: bowls full of limes on street-side tables are a novelty for travellers from countries where limes are an expensive commodity. Squeeze them into your soup broth or over noodles.
Pickled garlic: a variation on pickled chilli, this condiment is common in Vietnam, and particularly in the north, where it’s added to pho.
Fried shallots and garlic: sprinkle these crisp, golden slivers over your bakso (meatball soup) in Indonesia or noodle dishes in Vietnam.
Kecap manis: this thick, dark and sweet soy sauce is Indonesia’s favourite condiment. It’s used as a dipping sauce, drizzled over dishes such as bakso, and even mixed with lime to cure coughs.
Krupuk: you’re bound to find fried crackers of all shapes, colours and sizes on the table at Indonesian food stalls. Eat them with your meal, or crush them up and sprinkle them over dishes like burbur (porridge) or gado gado – you pay by the bag when you settle your bill. Here's an Indonesian dish of fragrant rice with a selection of flavourful sides, served with krupuk.
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