Ah, dips. “When I dip, you dip, we dip,” so the ancient proverb goes. Is there anything more pleasurable in gourmet life than ameliorating the taste of something with a burst of condimental flavor? Be it a creamy, vinegary, or relished substance, dips are a particular passion of mine.
Can you imagine eating a bowl of French fries without dip? Sure, but it’s a sad vision, isn’t it? The National is playing over that vision. And don’t you want, say, David Bowie playing over your French fry life moments? Thought so.
We invented sauces for a triumvirate of reasons: 1) cooking medium 2) meat tenderizer, and 3) flavor enhancer. Onward, I shall unveil the origin stories behind our globe’s most beloved dips.
1. Thousand Island
Thousand Island dressing was born in the – you guessed it (or maybe you didn’t) – Thousand Islands region of upstate New York along the St. Lawrence River. Local fishing guide George Lalonde would serve unique salad dressings to his fishing parties to spice up his shore dinners.
On one fateful night, George served a new dressing to his party that included famous stage actress May Irwin. Bowled over by the delicious taste, she requested the recipe, which George admitted his wife Sophia had created.
Sophia gave this thick, tangy delight of a recipe to Irwin, who then passed it along to her old pal, none other than George Boldt, owner of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Boldt immediately added the dressing to the hotel menu, thus introducing Thousand Islands Dressing to the world.
And now, a variation of it is used as the “special sauce” in essentially every major fast food cheeseburger from McDonald’s to In-N-Out. I bet Sophia wishes she copyrighted that recipe before handing it on over to those fancy society types!
A mayonnaise-based recipe, the ingredients include a mishmash of the following: olive oil, lemon juice, paprika, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, vinegar, chili sauce, tomato puree, finely chopped pickles, onions, peppers, hard-boiled egg, and parsley.
Do you remember where you were in 1992? That fateful year ranch dressing overtook Italian as the best-selling salad dressing in the United States, a title it has held ever since.
It only took 40 years to reach this echelon from its humble creation by dip-genius Steve Henson, a plumbing contractor who worked in the remote forests of Alaska. See what I mean about humble beginnings?
Years later, the recipe perfected, he and his wife served ranch dressing at a dude ranch called Hidden Valley Ranch that they operated in Santa Barbara.
The Henson’s found success starting with DIY take-home packets for their guests to creating a Hidden Valley Ranch Food Products factory, before Clorox swooped in and bought out Hidden Valley Ranch in 1972 for eight million dollars.
Soon after Clorox got ahold of it, its buttercream future was bottled and bright, including a non-refrigerated formulation in ’83.
The snack food industry appropriated the flavor, layering its pretzels and chips and corn products with who knows how many “Cool Ranch” flavor variations for generations of acne-ridden teens to gorge on.
A buttermilk-based recipe, the ingredients for ranch include a combination of salt, garlic, onion, with herbs (especially chives, parsley, and dill) and spices such as black pepper, paprika, and ground mustard seed, mixed into an oil-based sauce such as mayonnaise.
3. Banana Sauce
Especially popular in Filipino cuisine, Banana sauce is a tropical take on ketchup. During World War II, the Philippines were subject to terrible food shortages. Ketchup was already intensely popular there, but because they had no tomatoes, they needed to get inventive.
Enter stage right chemist Maria Orosa, who created the first banana ketchup by utilizing the native fruits of the island. She mixed mashed bananas with sugar, vinegar, spices, and herbs.
It became so popular it is now a staple of Filipino cuisine (no longer merely an alternative to tomato ketchup) and comes in both traditional or hot flavors. It’s a brown mixture, but oddly enough is usually dyed red to mimic tomato ketchup.
A banana-based recipe, the ingredients for banana sauce include garlic, shallots, ginger, sugar, spices, and now that WWII is but a memory, tomato paste.
4. Fish Sauce
The flavor jumping point on which all Southeast Asian cuisine gets catapulted, fish sauce is well-loved in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, and the Phillippines.
It may surprise you then to know that fish sauce was actually an invention by either the Greeks or Carthaginians. Known as garum, it made its way to Asia through trade routes sometime after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Referred to as nam bplah in Thai, which lovingly translates to “fish water," fish sauce is an odorous, salty brown liquid made from the juice of fish once it has been salted and fermented.
Usually made from anchovies, any tiny fish that is otherwise not useful for consumption will do. The process of creating fish sauce is no cakewalk – the fish must be super fresh-caught, mixed with salt, left in earthenware jars, weighted down and left in a sunny location for almost a year.
They are periodically “sunned” or uncovered which helps the fish return to a fluid and given a fragrant aroma and red color. After a year, the liquid is siphoned out of the jars, aired out for flavor, and bottled to be sold as 100% top-grade fish sauce.
How to tell if you don’t have a 100% top-grade fish sauce? The color will be dark brown or muddy (not amber-colored), or have an overwhelming fishy smell (as opposed to a pleasant sea aroma).
When two ingredients love each other very much, they make something special with that love. Something special, in garlic and mayonnaise’s case, is aioli. The word “aioli” itself comprises of its mom ‘n’ pop origins: garlic (ail) and olive oil (oli, in Provencal French).
With regard to its history, the famous chef Robert Courtine wrote in his book The Hundred Glories of French Cooking, “Among the peoples living around the Mediterranean coasts, the use of garlic dates back to the very beginning of cooking itself.”
He continues, "The poet Mistral in the late 19th century wrote of aioli: ‘it concentrates all the warmth, the strength, the sun-loving gaiety of Provence in its essence, but it also has a particular virtue: it keeps flies away.’”
Aioli has a few but mighty ingredients: garlic, egg yolk, oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper. Truly, a magical elixir.