The food scene in Brooklyn, New York has, in recent years, supported the growth of house-made charcuterie, micro-brewed beers, craft spirits, and pretty much farm-to-table everything. It should come as no surprise then, that the clever innovators and food obsessives of the movement would expand to other areas of the pantry.
Welcome to the world of craft condiments: often spicy, handmade in small batches with carefully chosen, mostly local ingredients. These are great products with great stories behind them.
Take Auria Abraham, for example. A Brooklyn-based mother of one who once made a living creating television jingles. She now focuses her energy on her business, Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen, crafting and selling the spicy Southeast Asian condiments she grew up eating.
“In Malaysia, everyone makes their own sambal, and each house does it differently,” she says. For her Hot Chili Sambal, produced in small batches from natural ingredients, Abraham uses her mother’s recipe, drawing out a deep umami flavor from dried shrimp and shrimp paste. She describes the rich red paste as “heat with tons of flavor” – great with everything from scrambled eggs to lamb chops.
The sambal, along with a milder-but-equally-delicious green version made with lime leaves, is among the dozens of products on offer at Heatonist, a hot sauce store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with a ‘try-before-you-buy’ philosophy. Owner Noah Chaimberg carefully chooses each jar of sauce at Heatonist, which opened in April of 2015 after raising over $25,000 on Kickstarter.
Products must be made with natural ingredients and use no additives, preservatives, extracts, gums or thickeners. “We only work with small batch producers,” Chaimberg says.
The fact that an idea of a shop dedicated to carefully sourced, handmade hot sauces can find crowdfunded support is a testament to the strength of a new kind of food culture not only in Brooklyn, but around the world.
“It’s sort of a conflagration of what’s been happening for a long time in the foodie movement,” Chaimberg says. People are being inspired by an appreciation for ingredients, a desire to know where their food is coming from, and the ready availability of global influences.
“We’re at a tipping point.” He says younger generations of Americans, having been raised on Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American and other ethnic cuisines, now have a preference for spicier foods and are not willing to settle for something ordinary. It is not uncommon, he notes, for customers to come into Heatonist looking for the perfect hot sauce to go with their hamburger or with the take-out food they are about to order.
“They’re thinking about the food, the context and the pairing,” he says. “My favorite thing is when people say that a product I suggested really inspired them to cook something new.” If there were ever such a thing as a ‘hot sauce sommelier’, Chaimberg would certainly be one of a rare breed.
Bringing together new flavors in unusual pairings is part of the alchemy that drew Nate Meshberg to small-batch condiment making. After a career as a chef, food stylist and recipe tester he wanted to start a food business of his own and was attracted to the idea of elevating food in jars to a high-end product.
Currently his Ft. Greene Farms line of products includes a red pepper relish, pickled mustard seeds and a charred Sriracha sauce. To make his version of the now nearly ubiquitous vinegar-based hot sauce, he carefully inspects each chili pepper, which he sources from farm in upstate New York. Then the chilis are roasted to release their natural sugars. “It’s important to me to slow down and treat the product with intelligence,” he says.
To Meshberg, condiments are an intriguing frontier in food because they blend together science, math and cooking. “On the line in a restaurant you cook the same 15 or 20 dishes over and over each season. This is a way to keep things different.”
He hopes to very soon add new products to his lineup, and is currently thinking about a habanero sauce with a color so vibrantly orange it evokes a summer sunset. “I think it would go great with barbecued chicken,” he says.
Others products he is experimenting with are fennel chow chow, blackberry bacon jam, and tomatillo sauce. But he is careful to not grow the company too fast, limiting each batch to 300 jars. “The organic growth of the company has been a bit of a blessing. I like to be able to see, smell and touch each stage of the process.”
This micro-batch philosophy is shared by Elizabeth Valleau, a former model, and Sam Mason, a chef, who together are the co-founders of Empire Mayonnaise Co., in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.
“We work out of a space that is less than 400 square feet and still hand make the product that goes into each and every one of our jars, from the actual making of the mayo to the labeling and fulfillment,” says Valleau.
When the company started about four years ago, there was a lot of eye-rolling and speculation by the online community that it would be just another flash in the pan. But Valleau and Mason defied the odds, and Empire’s top-performing mayonnaises – Bacon, White Truffle, Sriracha, and Roasted Garlic – are now carried by major retailers such as West Elm, Dean & Deluca, and Whole Foods.
Empire’s product line generally ranges between 8 to 15 products at any given time. New flavor ideas are typically determined by “what is seasonally available, as well as what food we personally are obsessing over at the time,” says Mason.
“Charred ramp mayo was a great example of local abundance, seasonality and personal obsession.” And a recently released pizza-flavored mayo was inspired by the scents and smells of their neighborhood.
“Pizza,” Mason says, “is the incense of Brooklyn.”