Updated: Aug 19, 2020
I'm about to let you in on what might be the most well kept secret in the global food community. Most cultures around the world start their dishes with a unique blend of aromatics that are the gateway to your palate's worldly adventure. What I mean to say is, you may not even know it, but the foundation of what makes Chinese cuisine, French cuisine, Cajun cuisine and Haitian cuisine unique lies in the very first thing that is added to the pot, aromatics. These blends consist of highly fragrant vegetables and sometimes herbs and are meant to be added to fats and introduced to heat in order to start each dish. Now, we all might be familiar with the standard French aromatics of Mirepoix: 50 % onions, 25% carrots, 25% celery, but how many other aromatic blends do you know of from other countries? I present to you, my guide to aromatics from around the world!
First up on our global tour, we are visiting Italy! In Milanese cooking, there is an aromatic blend called "Gremolata"
This aromatic blend consists of lemon zest, parsley, garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, and a pinch of crushed red pepper. Probably the most famous Italian dish to begin with Gremolata is Osso Bucco, or braised veal shank. When the Gremolata hits hot olive oil in a pan, you can immediately inhale the power of the aromatics. And just like that, you have the cornerstone of a very sexy, long braised dish.
Next up, one of my favorite aromatic blends is Sofrito. This blend originated in Spain and made its way through many Spanish colonized countries. Many Caribbean Latin countries have their own blend of Sofrito, but the one I'm most familiar with is the Puerto Rican version.
I will sometimes make Sofrito and freeze it in ice cube trays for easy dinner production at home. Sofrito typically consists of cilantro, culantro, onions, garlic, green bell pepper, salt, pepper, and sometimes seeded tomato. For me, being able to pop one of these Sofrito cubes into a pot with oil and then saute some chicken in it or make some tasty beans really quickly is sometimes a life saver during the week!
Now you know I'm not going to leave out our Ragin' Cajun' brothers and sisters! Cajun cuisine is in an of itself a blend of international flavors, which I love. The most prevalent flavors are a mix of French, West African, and Spanish cuisine. This is where the aromatic powerhouse the "Holy Trinity" is derived from. Onions, green bell pepper, and celery are the base of Cajun favorites like gumbo, shrimp etouffee, and jambalaya.
By dropping the Holy Trinity into a hot oiled pan, you're making an unsaid contract with whoever is in nose distance that you're about to knock their socks off with this arsenal of flavor!
Swinging back down to the Caribbean, we're visiting Haiti next. Haitian cuisine is known for the aromatic blend called "Epis", which translates to "Spice" in English. Epis is really great when used to marinate meat and veggies, but is also used as an aromatic starter.
Epis consists of parsley, onion, garlic, green bell pepper, cilantro, celery, scallion, bullion cube, clove, thyme, lime, vinegar, and olive oil. The mixture is pureed in a blender and then added as needed.
This aromatic blend works really well when frozen in ice cube trays. You can chuck a cube into your rice cooker the next time you make rice to add some soul to your dinner.
When I learned about our next aromatic blend, I remember thinking how this was going to step up my cooking game! The Cantonese style trinity of aromatics consist of ginger, garlic, and the white part of the scallion. The green part is used for garnish so it doesn't go to waste. But this trinity is added to woks after proteins are cooked off. The meat or tofu is removed from the wok and then the trinity is cooked over a low heat. After the trinity sweats for a few minutes, veggies are added and then a sauce is built on top and protein is added back to the wok.
Using the Cantonese Trinity will elevate your next stir fry and you can even add spicy chili peppers and star anise to add even more depth of flavor.
We're swinging back around to where we started and talking about probably the most commonly used aromatic blend, Mirepoix. As listed above, Mirepoix consists of carrots, onions, and celery and is often added to oil or butter on a medium heat in order to "sweat" the veggies. This trinity of aromatics is used as a base flavor for many classical French dishes and soups. Other variations include the addition of bacon and mushrooms as in the case of many dishes from the Burgundy Region of France.
So the next time you're looking to add a little umph to your dinner, try adding one of these international super stars to the pot at the very beginning of your cooking process. Just a little fat in the pan and an aromatic blend will turn your meal from drab to fab!