Condiments are edible food items which are additions to a dish or meal. These items are not strictly necessary in themselves to the dish or meal, but add to the enjoyment by enhancing or contrasting with the main food.
A broad term
Condiments is an umbrella term which takes in such items as sauces, spreads, vinegars, flavoured and unflavoured oils, relishes and pickled items: some people broaden the term to include spice mixes, pepper and finishing salts. Some definitions include simple slices of vegetables such as tomato, cucumber, etc.
Condiments are generally prepared and ready to use as a final addition to a prepared dish by the diner at the table. A jar of taco seasoning mixed dried spice would not usually be classed as a condiment, as it is meant to be used in cooking, whereas a jar of taco sauce would be, because even though it can be used in cooking, it can also be applied right at the table.
Many food items serve a dual purpose as both condiment and ingredient. Ketchup and mustard, for instance, are often called upon to be ingredients in baked bean recipes. Sauces such as mayonnaise and pesto can be used as a condiment (for instance, on French Fries or sandwiches), even though their prime purpose in theory is to be an ingredient in something; hummos and guacamole, which are used as dips, being food items in themselves, can be used as a condiment on sandwiches or burgers.
Almost every cuisine has its own range of unique condiments, though mustard and vinegar tend to be universal for the most part.
Sweet or savoury
Tracklements is a term that describes condiments that are purely savoury.
Some condiments are healthier than others: some may add amounts of calories, fat, or sodium to a meal that can be hard to justify for people who need to monitor certain medical or health conditions.
Condiments that are generally low in calories, fat and sodium include the millenia-old classics of mustard and vinegar (note though that some types of mustard, such as Dijon, can be higher in sodium than other mustards are.)
Some people argue that because condiments are consumed in such small quantities, that the salt, sugar and / or fat content of them isn’t really significant. Others reply that there is no one who actually uses only the one tablespoon of ketchup or mayonnaise for which nutrition information is listed on the bottle, and that we all use them in much larger quantities than we realize.
Condiments at the table used to be a luxury. They were either time-consuming extra items to prepare (that fell into the “nice to have” category at a time when wood had to be chopped to boil water to boil the laundry in), or expensive to buy and therefore reserved either for the wealthy or very special occasions.
The golden age of condiments started with the industrial revolution in England, and with it the advent of bottled condiments. In the first half of the 1800s, America relied on imports from England for these, but by the 1840s, Americans decided to get into the business and tap into their own domestic market.
The English word “condiment” comes from the Latin word “condimentum”, meaning a spice or seasoning, which came from the Latin verb “condire”, meaning “to season.”