Skip to main content

Exploring Sauces: The 10 Red Sauces of World Cuisine

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Learn all about red sauce.

Learn all about red sauce.

10 Red Sauces of World Cuisine

Red sauces—a colorful idea with worldwide appeal. They occur everywhere around the globe, rely on simple, local ingredients, and necessitate only basic kitchen skills. Each culture uses the bounty of its gardens to create these sauces that accompany the foods they love.

Let's explore the origins of ten of these sauces and learn how to make them for your friends and family.

Cocktail sauce, United States

Cocktail sauce, United States

1. Cocktail Sauce (United States)

There are some who say that British chef Fanny Cradock created the original shrimp cocktail in 1967, but according to food historians, the concept of fresh seafood cooked, chilled, and served with a spicy sauce originated in the United States sometime in the late 19th century. Constance Spry published a seafood cocktail using Dublin Bay Prawns in 1956.

Let’s not quibble about “who did it first.” Let’s enjoy the perfect seafood cocktail sauce. This recipe is from the blog A Southern Soul.

Enchilada sauce, Mexico

Enchilada sauce, Mexico

2. Enchilada Sauce (Mexico)

Enchiladas are a dish made of corn tortillas rolled around a filling and covered with a spicy red sauce. They originated in Mexico, near the Yucatan in pre-Columbian days. There are countless recipes on the internet, and cans or bottles of the stuff can be found in almost any grocery store, but take a look at the list of ingredients in that recipe or on the label. If you see “tomato,” this is not an authentic red enchilada sauce.

The “real deal” relies on whole chiles roasted to release their essential oils, then simmered with other vegetables to soften. There are no tomatoes. The lovely red hue comes from the chiles.

You can certainly do that, but Ali (of the blog GimmeSomeOven) has a wonderful recipe that relies on a flour roux, chili powder (the work of roasting, simmering, and straining already done for you), broth, and spices to create a luxurious enchilada sauce 100 times better than anything you will buy at the store.

3. Harissa (North Africa)

Harissa—the word comes from the Arabic harasa, meaning “to pound” and that is exactly how the sauce/condiment is formed. Most food historians believe that chiles arrived in Africa when the Spanish occupied Tunisia in the early 16th century. Although recipes vary from region to region (resourceful cooks rely on local ingredients) everyone can agree that the basic components are smoked peppers, garlic, and olive oil.

This recipe for harissa paste from SimplyDeliciousFood toasts the whole spices in a pan to release their essential oils, then grinds and mixes them with peppers, tomatoes, and garlic to create a boldly-seasoned paste.

Ingredients

  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds
  • 2 teaspoons dried chili flakes
  • 2 large red bell peppers, charred, skins removed (see video below for how-to)
  • 5 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 2 fresh red Serenade or jalapeno peppers
  • 1 fresh red bird's eye chili
  • 5 to 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Toast the whole spices over medium heat in a shallow saute pan until fragrant.
  2. Grind toasted spices with a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder until fine.
  3. Drain the canned tomatoes, reserving the juice.
  4. Place the drained tomatoes, toasted/ground spices, and remaining ingredients in a blender or food processor. Process until a vibrant red paste is formed. If the paste seems too thick, dribble in a bit of the reserved tomato juice and process again until desired consistency is achieved.
Ketchup, Great Britain (or China?)

Ketchup, Great Britain (or China?)

4. Ketchup (Great Britain or China)

In the barest of kitchens, even in the cupboard of Old Mother Hubbard, you are almost certain to find a bottle of ketchup. It’s estimated that ketchup can be found in 97 percent of U.S. households, but this ubiquitous condiment did not originate in America. Food historians believe it was discovered sometime in the late 17th to the early 18th century by British travelers to southeast China. Since fermented fish sauce (the main component) was not available at home, British cooks tried to replicate the flavor by using mushrooms, walnuts, oysters, and even anchovies. Obviously, this was nothing like the condiment we know and love today.

But then, tomatoes were introduced to the European garden plot, and the world changed. The first known tomato ketchup recipe in printed form appeared in 1812, created by James Mease, a prominent American scientist, and horticulturalists. His version contained tomato pulp and brandy, but no vinegar or sugar, so it still lacked the “tang” that we associate with ketchup.

The condiment was appreciated because of its long shelf life, but some of the preservatives being used were potentially harmful (would you like to have a little bit of coal tar and sodium benzoate with your French fries?). Enter Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, an American chemist who is credited with the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. He partnered with Henry J. Heinz ... and the rest is history.

Ashley (FrugalCouponLiving) has developed a recipe for ketchup that you can easily make with ingredients you already have in your pantry, and guess what? No cooking is needed. Just blend, chill, and serve.

Marinara, Southern Italy

Marinara, Southern Italy

5. Marinara (Southern Italy)

Questions, questions, so many questions. Marinara (the name itself refers to its origin) was born in southern Italy, near the sea (mar). Both Sicily and Naples have been suggested as the “where.” The tomato was a fruit of the New World, so the “when” is some time in the 16th century. The “why” is not known, but there are several fanciful theories. One is that it was made by Neopolitan sailors. Another says that the wives of those sailors made it as a quick meal for their hungry husbands (wink). Or maybe someone just had an overabundance of ripe tomatoes.

What we do know is that marinara:

  • Is a simple, basic sauce of tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, and herbs
  • Does not include red pepper flakes (that makes it arrabbiata)
  • Does not include meat (that’s a ragu)
  • Anchovies? That’s puttanesca.

This recipe for marinara from "ItalianChef" brings us back to the basics. Simple ingredients, simple preparation, and simply wonderful.

Red curry paste, Thailand

Red curry paste, Thailand

6. Red Curry Paste (Thailand)

Kristen and I have so much in common.

  • She's a food blogger.
  • She loves creating fresh-in-the-kitchen as opposed to from-a-jar-at-the-supermarket.
  • She believes in making reasonable ingredient substitutions.
  • And she has a wicked sense of humor

All four of those points shine through loud and clear in this recipe that she created for Thai red curry paste.

Romesco, Spain

Romesco, Spain

7. Romesco (Spain)

Catalonia, an autonomous community on the northeast tip of Spain, covers an area of nearly 12,400 square miles. The rugged Pyrenees rise to the north, and beautiful Mediterranean beaches form the south and east borders. The cuisine of the area is heavily influenced by an abundance of seafood. Catalonia is the birthplace of paella, esqueixada (salted cod), and romesco, a nut- and red pepper-based sauce. For more than 600 years, fishermen in this area have made this sauce to be eaten with fish. That's just the start.

I love romesco with chicken, as a dip for vegetables, stirred into mayonnaise, or used as a pesto and tossed with hot cooked pasta. Nagi (her blog is RecipeTinEats) calls this "magic Spanish romesco sauce."

Salsa, Mexico

Salsa, Mexico

8. Salsa (Mexico)

This combination of chilies, tomatoes, and other spices) can be traced to the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas. It was “discovered” by Spanish explorers upon the conquest of Mexico in 1519-1521 but was made centuries before that with the Aztec domestication of the tomato.

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds vine-ripened tomatoes (about 5 medium)
  • 2 fresh jalapeño chiles
  • 1/4 cup onion, diced
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro sprigs (tops only), chopped
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. Slice tomatoes in half horizontally. Remove seeds with a small spoon and discard. (This is easy with large Roma tomatoes that have just 4 seed-filled sections. Other tomatoes often have many little seed hiding places. For those, I hold the tomato half over the sink and use my fingers to push out the seeds).
  2. Cut tomato into small (1/4-inch) dice and place in a medium-sized mixing bowl.
  3. Wearing rubber gloves, cut chilies in half, remove seeds and finely mince. Add tomatoes to a bowl. (Please be careful when handling fresh chilies. Don’t rub your eyes or mouth). When you have finished preparing the chilies, remove and discard the rubber gloves.
  4. Add the remaining ingredients to the bowl and stir; add salt and pepper to taste. It can be made one hour ahead and kept at room temperature. Cover and refrigerate leftovers, but plan to use them within 24 hours.

Makes about 2 1/2 cups

Sriracha, Vietnam

Sriracha, Vietnam

9. Sriracha (Vietnam)

Sriracha might just be the world's coolest hot sauce. It's everywhere and seems almost as ubiquitous as ketchup. Less than two years ago the producer of the original Sriracha, Huy Fong Foods, sold 20 million bottles.

David Tran, CEO of the company, immigrated from Vietnam to Los Angeles, California in 1980. He states that try as he might, he could not find a reliable substitute for the beloved hot sauce of his homeland, so he created his own with jalapeños, vinegar, sugar, and garlic. This home-produced condiment is now created in a facility that produces 3,000 bottles every hour, 24 hours a day, six days a week.

I can't promise that this recipe for Sriracha by Nicole tastes exactly like the sauce in the bottle with the rooster logo, but it uses fresh ingredients, and that is precisely what makes David Tran's sriracha so special—despite pressure to expand he has never compromised on quality. All of his ingredients are fresh, always.

Sweet chili, Thailand

Sweet chili, Thailand

10. Sweet Chili (Thailand)

Sweet chili sauce (also known as Thai sweet chili sauce) is a popular condiment of red chile peppers, rice wine vinegar, fish sauce, garlic, and sugar. Appreciation of this sauce is no longer confined to Southeast Asia. This yin-yang of sweet and spicy is loved not only as a dip for egg rolls but as an accompaniment to burgers and fries, as well.

© 2018 Linda Lum