Mystery Ingredients that Bring a Dish to Life


The secret weapon of many a chef, anchovies give mundane dishes across a variety of cuisines a subtle lift, balancing flavors and saltiness where needed, and transforming a recipe from humble to haute-cuisine. Before you blanche at the notion, consider this: this small but mighty fish is a recipe booster for the likes of Italian modernist Mario Batali, who adds a few salty sardines to braised meats, and Turkish cuisine gourmet Ana Sortun of Oleana, in Cambridge, Mass.

Espelette Pepper

What paprika is to Hungary, Espelette is to the Basque region of France. Indeed, so revered is the pepper that each October the commune holds a two-day festival celebrating its culinary contribution. Certified as an appellation d’origine controlee product, a European Union classification that ensures its quality and distinction, Espelette is a cornerstone of the regional cuisine, replacing black pepper as the go-to spice. Air-dried and ground into a fine powder, it’s used on grilled meats, jamon, and sprinkled on everything from mashed potatoes and eggs to soups and sandwiches. Who loves it? White House executive chef Cristeta Commerford.

Fish Sauce

Also known as nam pla or nuoc mam, fish sauce is the condiment many are calling the next essential ingredient. It transcends noodle shops, showing up in everything from vinaigrettes and braised meats to the Italian -inspired fare served at Locanda in San Francisco. Patricia Wells, Anita Lo, and Zakary Pelaccio are among its devotees. Ed Lee, James Beard Best Chef finalist and Top Chef competitor, has described it as “adding age or adding history to a dish, in the way that things like bourbon and cheese get better with age.”

Palm Sugar

Heralded as a new superfood, this sweet stuff from Thailand may not only be healthier for you–it’s vitamin- and nutrient-rich–but also adds an exotic infusion to most everything it meets, from tagines and cocktails to cranberry tarts. Minimally processed, it’s considered a healthful alternative to agave syrup and cane sugar, and it’s popular with gluten-free and raw food chefs who say it adds a distinctive depth and texture to dishes. Think of brown sugar, only with rounded caramel and butterscotch notes. Think cream, not tang. Think yum.

black peppercorns
Black Pepper

Malabar and Tellicherry peppercorns from Kerala have been highly prized and traded for centuries.

White Miso

We already know what it does for traditional Japanese soup, but chefs say miso adds depth and sweetness to condiments without overwhelming the food it’s meant to complement. It makes a toothsome mayonnaise for a burger, adds a sweet spot in salad dressings, and contributes a layer to light sauces. Look for it in unexpected places, too: garlic and wasabi salmon glazes, miso mac & cheese, and more. Who loves it? Red Rooster chef-owner and converted miso master Marcus Samuelsson who features it in his miso-encrusted rack of lamb.


Civilizations have fought over it, sacrificed for it, slaved over it. Perhaps chocolate’s biggest mystery is its endurance as the world’s most-loved food. Few foods in the world have been so coveted and innovated–as payment for taxes, a token of affection, or a reward for accomplishment. Today, gastronomic chocolate takes all forms: sweet, salted, spiced, as toppings, in dishes and drinks. It’s the must-have in mole, the zing in zucchini bread, and turns an after-dinner drink from a nightcap into the sublime.


Is there a sweeter-smelling or more adaptable herb? “The smell of it alone recovers and refreshes our spirits,” said the ancient naturalist Pliny. And the herb’s freshness is surpassed only by the number of ways in which chefs use it to elevate their recipes. Mint is the great leveler–in vegetables from earthy Brussels sprouts to delicate spring peas, in grains and pastas, with meats as varied as beef and lamb, with seafood of all kinds. Where it excels: in a cilantro chutney for lamb, barbecue pork sandwiches, or spicy samosas, or Iron Chef Jonathan Sawyer‘s mint, feta and zucchini fritters.

Fennel Pollen

Sweet and spicy, pungent and earthy this highly aromatic powder, sourced from Italy by chef Mario Batali, is the “it” ingredient behind many current trends. Notes of licorice, honey, and curry make it a versatile add-on to a variety of dishes. Chef Laurent Tourondel of Arlington Club adds it to rubs for meat, poultry, and seafood. It goes on roasted veggies and salads, too. Food writer Peggy Knickerbocker said of it, “If angels sprinkled a spice from their wings, this would be it.” ‘Nuf said.

Continue to Next Story

Want more SAVEUR?

Get our favorite recipes, stories, and more delivered to your inbox.