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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.