We’ve long been told that variety is the spice of life, but in culinary terms the reverse is equally true. For many people however, the kitchen is a place where only the known is perceived safe. Aside from a faithful pair of salt and pepper shakers, few are confident about using herbs and spices.
Ironically, many of the pre-prepared foods we eat are enjoyable largely because of the herbs and spices added. It’s not flavour we shy away from, but a lack of understanding about how or what to use. However you needn’t be a professional chef to achieve a functional knowledge of how to create great flavours or identify compatible herbs and spices.
First step: understanding cuisines
One of the best places to begin your flavour exploration is by cuisine. Once you have a basic understanding of the flavour principles intrinsic to an particular cuisine, it’s much easier to replicate and build upon these flavours in your own cooking. It’s also a good way to overcome flavour fatigue – where repeated exposure to a flavour prompts our tastebuds to tune out.
To get you started, here’s a summary of the key herbs, spices and flavourings underpinning four popular cuisines:
Some countries’ cuisines exhibit a range of influences. For example, Malaysian cuisine
features elements of both Chinese and Indian cuisine, due largely to substantial labour and trade driven immigration in the 1800s.
A natural extension of these influences is often the creation of a new and unique cuisine such as Malaysian nyonya, which resulted from an blending of Chinese and Malaysian flavours.
In a similar way, you can create your own unique flavours by experimenting with different combinations of herbs, spices and flavourings within a particular cuisine based on the table above. An effective technique for incorporating new flavours into your dish is layering. Here are some ways to use the technique to add greater depth of flavour in your next meal:
Of course, marinades are nothing new – but have you tried marinading your meat for a stir fry, as well as adding flavours during cooking? Marinading is a gentler way to impart flavour – particularly when using delicate herbs and spices that are muted by the cooking process. It also allows flavours to infuse deeply, resulting in a tastier finished dish!
Marinade meat using a mixture of rice wine, sliced (not minced) fresh ginger and 5-spice powder. When you are ready to cook, drain off the marinade and discard.
2. Infused oil
Whether it’s scallops or steak, tuna or tofu, most pan or stir fried meals can be enhanced with an infused oil. Whilst you can purchase pre-prepared infused oils, it’s very quick and easy to make your own as part of meal preparation. Some important things to remember when flavouring oil are:
- Maintain a gentle heat. You want to coax out the flavour, not crush it!
- Use generously sized herbs, spices and flavourings, so they are easier to remove
- Lightly crush aromatics (such as seeds, pods, fruit rind and leaves) before adding to the pan, as this releases their flavourful natural oils
- Choose an oil that complements the cuisine (like peanut oil for Asian food) or has a neutral flavoured (such as canola or rice bran oil)
Using the Chinese stir fry theme above, heat peanut oil in a wok or deep frying pan and gently saute garlic and peppercorns for 3-5 minutes. Remove the garlic and peppercorns before adding meat or vegetables.
Before you serve up your next meal, add some last minute taste and texture with garnishes. It can be as simple or complex as you like, whether it’s a sprinkling of crushed peanuts and sliced spring onions atop Pad Thai noodles, a drizzle of sesame oil and julienne ginger over freshly steamed vegetables or aromatic coriander and mint leaves scattered over skewers of satay chicken.
The more familiar you become with the herbs, spices and flavours intrinsic to a cuisine, the easier it will become to create your own taste sensations. You needn’t have all the ingredients associated with a specific cuisine to get great results. As an added bonus, many herbs, spices and flavourings feature in more than one cuisine, so start with a few of your favourites… and let your taste buds lead the way!