Herbs Jazz Up the Culinary Landscape

Piquant sauces from Pakistan to Puerto Rico enliven foods, aid digestion and even help diners keep their cool.

| April/May 2006

  • Rick Wetherbee

Piquant sauces, featuring fresh or dried herbs and traditional spices, are a part of almost every cuisine in the world and include a wide range of flavors. Many Americans are familiar with pungent sauces from Mexican, Latin American and Asian cuisines, but are surprised to learn that intensely flavored sauces also were part of the cuisines of the Germans, Eastern Europeans and English long before chiles found their way to Europe.

One reason for the worldwide commonality of piquant sauces is that sharp accompaniments serve as a foil for the rich flavors of pork, lamb, duck, goose, and wild venison and boar. They also aid with the digestion of the heavy fats of such meats. And in hot regions, such as India, Pakistan and much of the New World, hot condiments can help cool the body by promoting sweating.

Luckily for Europeans and Asians — to whom chiles weren’t an option until after the discovery of North America — hot chile peppers aren’t a requirement for piquancy in a sauce, which also can draw a sharp bite from peppercorns, fresh ginger, horseradish, mustard, garlic and many other foods. Spicy-hot and spicy-sweet ingredients combine with other herbs and spices to create memorable blends of intense flavor that transcend familiar boundaries of ethnic cuisines. We have only to taste, learn and enjoy.


Nearly all piquant sauces around the world feature the diverse flavors of the herbs local to the area where they are created. Everyone knows about Italian basil pesto, with its healthy dose of garlic, but countless other combinations feature the classic herbs of the Mediterranean.

There is the German Grüe Sosse, or green sauce, of Frankfurt, that is delicious served with fish, red meats or hard-cooked eggs. Sometimes known as salsa verde or verte in other areas of Europe, in Frankfurt the sauce is loaded with at least eight different finely chopped fresh herbs, including delicate chives and chervil and the stronger flavors of sorrel, savory and tarragon.

Meanwhile, salsas from Latin America traditionally are vegetable-based, with ripe tomatoes or tomatillos (small husk tomatoes) serving as the primary tart ingredient. Along with odiferous coriander leaf, also known as cilantro, we like to add other herbs such as mint marigold (Tagetes lucida), a mild oregano, pungent rosemary or sweet spearmint.

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