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6 Rich, Creamy, and Essential Mother Sauces Around the World

Food + Drink
by Alex Bresler Jul 20, 2020

French chef Marie-Antoine Carême introduced the concept of mother sauces to the culinary world in the 19th century. Carême codified four sauces that could be used as a foundation for virtually every other classic French sauce: béchamel, velouté, espagnole, and tomat. Shortly after, chef Auguste Escoffier added a fifth, hollandaise, solidifying France’s famed “grandes.”

Neither Carême nor Escoffier invented the idea of foundational ingredients, however. Cuisines all over the world rely on base sauces, stocks, and culinary building blocks to kickstart more complicated sauces, soups, stews, and regional recipes that only require a few additions (these derivatives are called “daughter sauces”). Not all mother sauces play by the French rules, but they are all indispensable to their respective cuisines.

Here are six other “mothers” of the food world, from Mexico to the Middle East.

1. Spain: picada

Simple yet essential to Spanish cuisine, picada is a combination of just three ingredients: almonds or other nuts, crusty bread, and a liquid, which might be stock, vinegar, wine, or water. The trio is ground in a mortar and pestle, often with the addition of garlic or saffron, and fried. In the Catalonia region where it originated, picada’s most famous daughter sauce is romesco, which traditionally incorporates ñora peppers, tomatoes, vinegar, and oil. A common thickening agent, picada is also a base for dishes like ajo blanco, a chilled almond soup.

2. Mexico: mole

Poblano mole ingredients

Photo: Marcos Castillo/Shutterstock

Mexico’s mother sauce is one of its most celebratory dishes: mole. The word mole, which comes from the Nahuatl word for sauce, can be used to describe any number of thick, chilli-based sauces. Black, red, yellow, and green moles are all common. Oaxaca alone is famous for perfecting seven different recipes, the most popular of which is mole negro.

Both Oaxaca and Puebla claim to have invented mole. Recipes vary, but most modern takes blend a combination of dried pasilla, mulato, ancho, and chipotle chiles with nuts and seeds for thickness, fruit for sweetness, herbs and spices for complexity, and often chocolate for depth.

Mole coloradito adds tomatoes to a chilli-chocolate base and is often served over enchiladas. Mole poblano is favored in Puebla and most commonly served in American restaurants. On special occasions, turkey is slathered in dark mole, while everyday restaurants are more likely to serve mole with chicken. Daughter sauces and central Mexican delicacies aside, you’ll also see mole served plain with tortillas, tamales, or other finger foods to scoop up plain.

3. Lebanon: tarator

Tarator is a Middle Eastern sauce made with lemon juice, garlic, salt, and watered-down tahini, a sesame paste that’s used liberally throughout the region. It can be eaten plain. In Lebanon, it might be served alongside meze bites like falafel or flatbread, or as a dipping sauce for bzeh ma’ tarator (snails in tarator sauce). Tarator is also the basis for regional staples like hummus and baba ganoush, dips thickened with chickpeas and eggplant, respectively.

4. Korea: gochujang, doenjang, and ganjang


Photo: Thanthima Lim/Shutterstock

Gochujang, doenjang, and ganjang are the holy trinity of Korean cuisine. They’re not sauces in the classical French sense: Gochujang and doenjang are fermented soybean pastes while ganjang is a light soy sauce and liquid byproduct of doenjang. Yet this trio is behind Korea’s most recognizable flavors, earning all three the title of Korea’s mother sauces.

Salty, sweet, and mildly spicy, gochujang can be used as a marinade for meat or seafood, a sauce for noodle dishes like bibimguksu, or a condiment. Ganjang is umami-rich and used for seasoning. Doenjang, on the other hand, is the starting block for countless soups, stews, and sauces.

If you’ve eaten Korean barbecue, you’ve likely tried Korea’s mother flavors. The classic Korean barbecue dipping sauce on every table is an easy mix of gojuchang and doenjang that’s delightful with pork belly.

5. Puerto Rico: sofrito

Originally from Spain, sofrito is a cardinal ingredient in a great many cuisines. Variations of the tomato-based sauce have spawned other sauces, stews, and regional preparations across Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe’s Iberian Peninsula, as well as Italy and the Philippines.

Puerto Rico’s cuisine is among the most sofrito-dependent. There, the sauce begins with a basic blend of pureed aromatics known as recaito: Sweet, lightly spicy aji dulce and green bell peppers are cooked down in pork fat with garlic, onions, cilantro, and culantro. An olive-caper condiment called alcaparrado is commonly added, as well.

Sofrito generally throws tomatoes into the mix, turning green recaito into a proper red sauce. This sauce can then be modified to suit various rice dishes, including arroz con gandules.

6. Various: yogurt sauce


Photo: Liliya Kandrashevich/Shutterstock

In 2016, chef and Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat author Samin Nosrat named yogurt sauce the first of five “new mother sauces” in an article she wrote for The New York Times. Yogurt that’s been thinned with olive oil and some kind of acid is the backbone of sauces that are beloved around the world. Nosrat references Indian raita and its cousin, Persian cucumber yogurt, as two examples.

Tzatziki may be the best-known relative of these yogurt-cucumber sauces. In Greece, it’s rounded out with lemon juice or wine vinegar, dill, and garlic. A similar sauce called cacik is eaten like soup in neighboring Turkey, where another yogurt-based dish called haydari is prepared as a meze dip, minus the cucumbers.

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