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Ingredient Spotlight: Worcestershire Sauce

Just when you think you've gotten a hang of the vegetarian thing, you'll come across a recipe that requires a few splashes of deliciously tangy but difficult to pronounce Worcestershire sauce. No big deal, you think, until you read the fine print and discover that Worcestershire contains anchovies! It's fish sauce. A really tasty fish sauce, but fish sauce nonetheless.

Worcestershire sauce probably has its roots in ancient Rome (or in 17th century Europe--it depends on who's telling the story). Romans would ferment anchovies, salt, and water to make a thick and smelly condiment called garum. Garum found its way into almost everything--think of it like Roman ketchup. The Romans took this garum with them when they traded along the ancient spice routes through India. Indians then added tamarind (a sweet-and-sour fruit from Africa) and spices to the sauce. In the 1800's when the British found their way into India, this sauce was apparently taken back to Britain by a nobleman where it was tweaked again to finally become Worcestershire sauce. Or so the legends go. Rest assured that whatever the truth, every time you use Worcestershire sauce--in red meat, Caesar salad, a Bloody Mary, Shepherd's Pie, or snack mix--you're eating bottled history.

But what do you do if you're vegan, vegetarian, or follow the kosher law of not combining fish and meat dishes? What can you use to add that distinctive spicy tang to your food? Well, thanks to globalization and the internet, you can now buy a vegan version of Worcestershire sauce (even in a small town like mine). Or you can make your own with vinegar, onions, garlic, molasses, and tamarind paste...but it's probably just easier to buy the premade stuff.

Now does the vegan Worcestershire sauce taste like the original? Well, after drinking a spoonful of each (yes, this vegetarian tried the one with anchovies), I can attest that they're really very similar. They're both slightly sweet, quite salty, somewhat sour, and burn the back of the throat a little (let's just say, I don't recommend chugging either of them). They're also comparable in price.

By the way, you'll notice that the original Worcestershire sauce on the left is gluten-free. That's because it's sold in the United States (the beige paper label is a give-away). If you find yourself in Great Britain, however, and a bottle of Worcestershire sauce is wearing an orange label, then it probably contains malt vinegar which is definitely not gluten-free.

Also, the vegan Worcestershire sauce on the right contains wheat. Don't worry, you can find Worcestershire sauce that is both vegan and gluten-free on-line or in health food stores or higher-end supermarkets.

With so many options out there now, nearly all of us (except those who can't have soy or sugar...someone really needs to start working on that version) can enjoy Worcestershire sauce!

Now if it were only as easy to say as it is to eat!

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