What do the fermented meat condiments of fifth-century China and the foam, scents and smoke used in molecular gastronomy today have in common? They are all sauces. Maryann Tebben, head of the Center for Food Studies at Bard College at Simon's Rock and author of Sauces, explains.

Defining a sauce

Noelle Carter: What would you say constitutes a sauce? How would you define it?

Maryann Tebben Maryann Tebben

Maryann Tebben: I have found it's really difficult to define a sauce. I like to say that sauces are not food but they're of food. The basic elements are that it's a refined preparation that's a complement or a contrast of food. It's edible, but you don't eat it by itself. You have to have what the industrial food industry likes to call a host food; then the sauce acts as a complement or a contrast. I say refined preparations because you can have elemental ingredients like salt that are food adjuncts that add flavor to food, but they're not sauces.

The problem is where to go from there. In my book, I say that mainly sauces are smooth, liquid preparations. But that's not true of salsa, for example. It's not true of hard sauce for British desserts. You have to go from there and refine it.

The essential element is that it's something that adds flavor to food but doesn't stand on its own. There the debates begin. What's interesting to me about sauce, as a subject of study, is that there are lots of debates about sauce, inside of sauce, national identity, linguistic questions. It's a huge subject. That's why I was fascinated and why I wanted to write this book.

Origin sauces

NC: How far back do sauces go? When is the earliest documentation?

MT: The origin sauces that I talk about start in fifth-century China. They're condiments. The origin of the word condiment means it's something that adds flavor to food. These original sauces are fermented meat condiments -- again, this is fifth-century B.C. China. Those meat condiments are written about and they're described as to food what a general is to an army: They lead, perfect and correct food.

Around the third century A.D., those meat-based fermented sauce preparations are replaced by soy. Soy sauce dominates China for a long, long time. Then it gets imported into Japan around the 12th century A.D., and you see fermented sauces go from there.

In more water-centric countries, you have fish sauces, which a lot of people know about. In Indonesia and Vietnam, you have these fish sauces. Garum, the Roman fermented fish sauce, is roughly around the same time. The fish sauce in Rome is relatively similar to the fish sauces in Vietnam and Indonesia. Those fermented sauces are the oldest sauces.

Vinegar is a component of other sauces. Vinegar is roughly contemporary to those early meat-based fermented meat condiments.

Those are the origin sauces. They lead to all kinds of other sauces, including the ketchup that we know now, which started out as a fermented product. It was fermented mushrooms or walnuts originally in the English version. It becomes a tomato preparation much, much later.

sauces Photo: Genista / Flickr

NC: One thing I found fascinating, contrary to popular myth, is that sauces were not made to disguise bad or putrid food, but more as a condiment to complement the dish.

MT: Right. The origin of sauces is these fermented preparations. I talk about sauces as contrastive or complementary. The contrastive sauces are these preparations; sometimes they were spice mixes that were meant to correct food.

The idea -- this is from Galen and this is late antiquity -- is that foods on their own, meats for example, have a certain humor. They're either cold or hot, and it has nothing to do with the temperature of the cooked food. For example, it's the inherent quality of the food. Some meats were thought to be cold, so you wanted to counteract that with something hot like pepper.

In order for the food to be nutritional, in order for it to be digested well, you'd counteract, contrast it with something like a sauce. It wasn't to cover putrid meat. Meat was expensive, spices were expensive, so the people who were eating meat and spices had enough money to buy fresh meat. It was to make the food nutritionally sound.

That practice continues for a long time, until about the 14th century. There's someone called Magninus in Milan who writes a book talking about the contrastive quality of sauces. He also says that sauces can be useful nutritionally because they make food taste better. When food tastes better, you want to eat more of it. That can be a nutritional benefit, as long as you don't eat too much.

That's when the idea of contrastive versus complementary starts to change. You see in the 14th century, in the 15th century, and in the Renaissance, that these sauces that become less contrastive and more complementary. The big change is butter. In 1651, there's a French chef, La Varenne, who is the first to introduce a butter-based roux for thickening sauces. This changes French sauces forever. There was some departure from the contrastive sauce idea around that time. Butter wins the day.

The future of sauces

NC: One of your last chapters explores odd sauces: dessert sauces, whipped cream, cranberry sauce in a can and more. Where do you think sauces are going? How has molecular gastronomy changed the game?

Sauces Sauces

MT: It's very hard to predict. Molecular gastronomy is very interesting because this gets back to the definition of sauce: Is it still a sauce if it's a foam or an ice or even a smoke or a scent? Those are all sauces, according to molecular gastronomy. I think they are, because they still complement food. They're a refined preparation. They add flavor. That's changed the sauce world a lot, but it's really more on the high end. It makes sauce much more interesting.

But I'm not sure on the ground level that's changed the sauce world too much. We have seen vinegar carry through, so vinegar-based sauces. Ketchup is one of them. But there are lots of other examples. The spicy sauces, Tabasco and Sriracha, are still quite popular. I see those hanging on, carrying through.

I was thinking about the next step recently, and it seems as though everything old is new again. I was thinking about horseradish. Horseradish is an old ingredient, and horseradish sauce has been around a long time. But I think it's poised for a return. Horseradish sauce has that vinegar base that people seem to like. It also has the heat that you can increase or decrease depending on your tastes. It's a daring sauce.

There's a Swedish sauce for herring called pepparrotssås sauce that sounds like something that I'd like to try.

I'm fascinated by celery sauce. I discovered celery sauce in Pittsburgh in the Heinz archives. In the 19th century, it was popular because it was supposed to be healthy for the brain and nerves. It was a common condiment sauce in restaurants for a long time. It disappeared right around the turn of the 20th century. You don't see it anymore. But it was a commercial sauce produced by Heinz.

NC: Maybe we'll see that making a comeback.

Noelle Carter
Noelle Carter is a chef and test kitchen manager at the Los Angeles Times.