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A Mystery Begins in the Backyard

July 31, 2002|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Firing up my barbecue a few months back, I started wondering about sauces. Not the respectable French sauces that food writers deal with all the time--and that nobody ever makes in the backyard, it occurred to me as I sucked thoughtfully on a beer--but the bottles of steak and barbecue sauce I had lined up at the ready. Where'd they come from? What's their story?

French chefs, who base their cooking on cream or reduced meat juice, have no use for these "violent Anglo-Saxon sauces." The rap against them is that they make everything taste the same. But come on, I thought, nobody complains that truffles make everything taste the same. If you want a particular flavor, that's what you want. Sometimes it's sauce espagnole, sometimes it's got to be Worcestershire.

In any case, who uses the same sauce on everything? Who puts ketchup on ribs and T-bone? That's what barbecue sauce and steak sauce are for. And the number of barbecue sauces is beyond counting. In fact, concocting barbecue sauces is one of our most vigorous culinary activities, right up there with chili-making.

It turns out that bottled sauces have a long, and colorful history stretching back more than 300 years. The story begins in 17th century England, when English home cooks were using either melted butter or plain gravy for all their sauce needs. Over in France, Louis XIV's chefs had just created an impressive new haute cuisine emphasizing huge quantities of meat. Many French sauces were now based on an expensive ham concentrate called coulis.

On returning from exile in 1660, Charles II introduced the latest French dishes to the English court, but English home cooks refused to go along with what they called "French extravagance." This might sound like simple, unimaginative penny-pinching, and probably it was, at least to start with. But as England grew more prosperous and able to afford the elaborate French style, English home cooks stubbornly kept putting gravy or butter on everything, varying them by adding wine, mushrooms, anchovies, pickles and the like.

Meanwhile, the East India Co. was making England a major player in the Far East. English voyagers found the people of China and Southeast Asia using their own liquid seasonings, fish sauce and soy sauce. Like two favorite English sauce additives, mushrooms and anchovies, both Asian sauces were based on a protein-rich ingredient, giving them umami, the "tastiness" quality that the Japanese find in mushrooms, soy products and dried fish.

The English were enthusiastic right from the start. "Suoy is the choicest of all Sawces," gushed John Ovington in "A Voyage to Suratt in 1689."

There was already a craze for Indian ingredients in Ovington's day. Indian mango pickles were so fashionable (and expensive) that English cooks were making thrifty imitations out of peaches, melons or cucumbers. In 1699, one writer gave a recipe for a "mango" that was merely pickled green walnuts: "a more agreeable Mango," John Evelyn wrote, "than what is brought us from abroad; which you may use [as a flavoring] in any Sauce, and is of it self a rich Condiment."

Once the English started importing ketchup and soy sauce, they naturally started imitating them too. But they were a little vague about what these sauces were, and none of their 18th century "ketchups" or "soys" tastes much like the real thing to us.

In fact, it's hard to say what they thought the difference was between soy and ketchup. In their defense, there was also confusion in the Far East. In Malaysia, where the English first encountered it, kecap originally meant a Southeast Asian fish sauce like the Thai nam pla or the Vietnamese nuoc mam, but today kecap means soy sauce there.

You might expect English cooks to make their ketchup from anchovies, which have the same salted-fish flavor as nam pla. They did make some anchovy ketchup, but from the start their favorite ketchup was extracted from salted mushrooms. Probably they were really trying to duplicate soy sauce--by mixing chopped mushrooms with salt and leaving them overnight, they made sure the juices would oxidize and turn brown. The second most popular kind, pickled walnut "ketchup" (pretty close to what John Evelyn had been calling a mango in 1699), had an even darker and more soy-like color.

The basic ketchup idea was the brine from pickling something, flavored with various spices, usually including cloves and mace. These imitation ketchups were handy not only for the home cook, but for the traveler who faced boring food in small-town inns, to say nothing of tedious ship's rations on long ocean trips. They spread quickly throughout the English-speaking world and even beyond. By the 19th century, Russian housewives were making their own "mushroom soy" (soya iz shampinyonov).

Doctoring the Sauce

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