Classic Flavor Combinations for Global Cuisines

flavor combination for global cuisines


When you think of your favorite dishes from a particular cultural cuisine, what comes to mind? Which flavours come to the forefront of your memory? If you close your eyes and think of the flavours associated with Greek or Thai dishes, which notes instantly come to mind?

Let’s explore a few different global regions for the flavour combinations they’re known for.

Chinese

There are obviously several different regional cuisines nestled under the blanket term of “Chinese Food” (i.e. Szechuan, Hunan, Cantonese, etc.), but although these regions add their own special touches to their dishes, there seems to be a trio of ingredients that makes up the base aromatic flavour profile for all of them: garlic, ginger, and scallions.

To extend flavour profiles, you can include soy and hoisin sauce, white pepper, and sesame oil, as well as chili peppers.

Thai

One can normally tell a Thai dish from a mile away because of its characteristic use of fish sauce (phrik nam pla), chili, and lime. Tamarind is also used a great deal in Thai cooking, as well as coconut, garlic, cilantro, and peanuts.

Vietnamese

With their penchant for encompassing the 5 flavour elements—salty, sour, bitter, sweet, and spicy—Vietnamese cuisine is a symphony of tastes. Much like in Thai dishes,  you’ll find lime, lemongrass, fish sauce, soy sauce, chili, garlic and cilantro used in a variety of different ways.

Japanese

Clean and simple, Japanese cuisine often incorporates soy sauce, miso, umeboshi, mirin wine, and rice vinegar. Pickled vegetables are common, as is the use of dashi broth and sake in various dishes. Seafood is the predominant animal protein in Japanese dishes, with mammal meat used very sparingly.

Northern Indian

Onion, garlic, and ginger form the base of many northern Indian dishes, with ghee, turmeric, chili powder, coriander seed, and cumin as runners-up. Yoghurt will also be used in some recipes, as a cooling influence when the spicy heat gets a bit intense.

Persian

The cuisine that hails from Iran is noteworthy, as it integrates flavours that may be unusual to a Westernized palate. Parsley, mint, onion, garlic, and other fresh green herbs team up with pomegranate, saffron, cinnamon, and lime in many dishes, which can also incorporate a variety of nuts, and fruits like apricots or plums.

Lebanese

Garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice are the trinity that form the foundation of many Lebanese dishes. Cumin is also used quite liberally, as are mint, cinnamon, sesame seeds (i.e. in tahini) pickled vegetables, pistachios, and yoghurt. Raw onions are also used fairly often, but their sharpness is tempered by their exposure to lemon juice.

Moroccan

Olive oil, pickled lemon, cinnamon, cumin, parsley, and mint are the most common flavourings you’ll find in Moroccan recipes. Dates and peanuts are also used quite liberally, as are warming spices like chili and cardamom. Sweet flavours are balanced by acidic and salty ones, so experiment a little.

Spanish

The building blocks of Spanish cuisine are olives, olive oil, smoked paprika (pimentón de la Vera), and sherry vinegar, along with garlic, bay leaves, and saffron. Additional ingredients will vary depending on region—such as fresh seafood in coastal areas, as well as pork and a variety of different cheeses—but with those 4 ingredients, you can season anything from ternasco con patatas a lo pobre to paella.

Italian

With olive oil, basil, tomatoes, oregano, and garlic, you have the most important ingredients in Italian cuisine. Add balsamic vinegar, thyme, a variety of cheeses, capers, and pine nuts to that list, and even the Caesars of old will be curling their toes. These will work together to season anything from polenta and pasta to risotto and minestrone.

French

Where would French cuisine be without its fleur de sel and herbes de Provence? Rosemary, thyme, savoury, basil, garlic, and sage are used extensively, paired with olive oil in the southern regions, and butter in the north. Wine is of the utmost importance, and the wide variety of cheeses and olives available can be incorporated as well.

Greek

Garlic, oregano, olive oil. With those three ingredients, you can flavour nearly any Greek dish you can imagine. Much like Lebanese cuisine, Greek food usually contains a fair amount of lemon, parsley, and mint, but adds in bay, thyme, and fennel to its repertoire. Eggplants (aubergines) and zucchini (courgettes) are popular ingredients, as are yoghurt and feta.

Scandinavian

Very few herbs and vegetables grow well in the Nordic lands, so traditional seasonings there are very distinctive. Dill was the most commonly-used seasoning before other herbs and spices were imported, as were onions, mustard, and juniper berries.

Eastern European

Paprika, onion, dill. Liberal use of sour cream, and pickled vegetables. Caraway is also used a fair bit (as in caraway rye bread, or sauerkraut cooked with caraway),  and  mustard seeds. One characteristic of Eastern Euro cuisine is the salty-sour aspect of many dishes, probably because many ingredients have been either pickled or salted as preservation methods.

UK

Onions and fresh herbs form the base notes of cuisine from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall, with subtle variations between the countries. As there are few indigenous spices, herbs such as onion (including scallions), chives, sorrel, parsley, mint, savoury, rosemary, bay leaves, and thyme were commonly used, and cabbage was a staple vegetable throughout the UK. Though curries and imported spices are often used now, traditional fare is simple and hearty, with salt and pepper as the most basic seasonings.

South American

There is enormous diversity between the regional cuisines of Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, and all the other South American countries, but there are a few basic flavour profiles that they all have in common. Garlic, tomatoes, and cilantro are central to many dishes from the various regions,  while accoutrements such as pineapple might be common in Peru, while avocado might be more common in Colombia.

Mexican

Tomatoes, chili peppers, and lime create the holy trinity of Mexican cuisine, with secondary notes from cilantro, onions, and cocoa powder (as in mole sauce). Corn, beans, and chili peppers form the base of countless Mexican dishes from Chihuahua to the Yucatan, and the addition of fruits and vegetables such as tomatillos, avocados, and tubers vary depending on region.

Caribbean

The fusion of African, European, and Central American flavours that constitute Caribbean cuisine makes for a fascinating array of taste combinations. Cilantro, sweet potatoes, bell peppers, tomato, and coconut can be found in dishes throughout the Caribbean, with jerk seasoning, plantains, hot peppers, garlic, bananas, and mangoes incorporated into many recipes as well.

Cajun

Bell pepper, onion, and celery are this cuisine’s triad of flavours, with cayenne pepper, bay leaves, black pepper, parsley, oregano, and thyme following closely behind. These ingredients are blended and brightened with olive oil, brown sugar, and citrus juices in varying measures depending on the dish being prepared, but all flavours must balance each other harmoniously.

- Lana Winter-Hébert

Lana Winter-Hébert fell in love with cooking while still in primary school. The various dietary needs of her extended family (i.e. gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, vegetarian, and paleo diets) have helped her to learn a fair bit about substitutions and meal plan modifications, and though her first love will always be the Scandinavian/Eastern European cuisine she grew up with, she has a penchant for Mexican food and can be bribed heartily with the offer of good huevos rancheros. Lana currently resides in rural Quebec with her husband and family, where she divides her time between writing, editing, design, and tending her permaculture garden. She cans and preserves whatever's in season, and is having some fantastic adventures with home cheese-making and mead-brewing.

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