The Life-Changing Magic of a Great Sauce

published Jul 6, 2016
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Like anyone who’s been lucky enough to travel to Bali, I wish I could have brought it home in my suitcase. There’s a reason that the island province of Indonesia has a reputation for attracting “seeker” types like me — the nomads, the yoginis, the meditators.

Bali is a jolt to the senses, from the bewitching sound of the gamelans, to the colorful palette of its temples and native flora, to the scent of the sea in the air. And for anyone interested in food, even its everyday dishes — sticky rices and simple proteins, made rapturous with chili and ginger and garlic and lemongrass — can be simply intoxicating.

(Image credit: Morgan Childs)

How Travel Helped Me Slow Down

I went to Bali a few months after finishing my master’s degree, and I was in a slump. My work didn’t feel right for me. My relationship was in a rut. I was also in a cooking slump: Uninspired, I ordered takeout Thai food for working lunches and dinners, day after day.

I knew I needed a change, but I didn’t know what I wanted, and nothing felt like it was moving forward.

Sometimes, I think, when these moments arise, it’s best to take one thing at a time. Travel helps you do that naturally. In a place that feels foreign — and ideally where you don’t have cell phone data — it’s easy to get swept up in one beautiful new thing until it carries you along to the next.

For me, it was those gamelons. The loops and hooks of the local script. The smell of gasoline, sold in vodka bottles. The black sand. The “ketchup” bottles of brown sambal. The fried egg on everything.

Imagine if, on any old day, you could stop to be awed by each gear in the machine of your daily life. If you could say to yourself, “Look at the curious way the locals ring the bell when they want the bus driver to let them off. How delightful!” or, “How funny that they stack all those aluminum cans in a tower, like a fortress of on-sale soup!” or, “What a strange language this is to the ear, mashed up from German and Latin and so many others, with such an illogical grammar!”

Like no other part of life, travel allows you to take one thing at a time and hold it in your hands, feel it, turn it over, be moved by it.

The Sauce That Got Me Back in the Kitchen

I wish I could say that I returned from Bali inspired to cook like one of the locals, but it was a meal in a health-food joint in Ubud that got me back in the kitchen — something not so far off from many meals I’d cooked before. The plate I ordered was nothing special — steamed rice, steamed vegetables — but the secret was in the sauce that came with it: warm and creamy and balanced, a little oil, a little salt, a little lemon, a touch of fat and flavor to pull the whole meal together. I remember sitting outside feeling the cool air on my sunburnt skin and thinking, I can replicate this. I can bring this feeling home.

And I did. Not with the sounds and the smells and the smiles of the children on the streets of Uluwatu, but with a handful of grains, whatever vegetables I happen to have on hand, and a brief moment to meditate on a single simple pleasure.

And, of course, a great sauce. After returning from Bali, I added a couple to my repertoire: one starring tahini, miso, and ginger, another with cashews or sunflower seeds, cilantro, and lemon. They pair beautifully with whatever’s in season at the farmers market (or whatever was fresh a few days ago, but now needs to be used up) and keep in the fridge for a few days, so I can use them again. Lunch or dinner comes together quickly, and then I try to enjoy it slowly and with a sense of awe, if only briefly, for the present moment.

We’ve got plenty of simple sauces to help you pull a great meal together in just a few whisks of a fork or whirrs of a blender — look below for inspiration.

Get the Special Sauces

Do you have your own favorite sauces to share? Tell us about them in the comments.