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Flavor Principles: What Are Yours?

March 5, 2010

Do you know Elizabeth Rozin’s books? She’s a food historian and author of Crossroads Cooking and Ethnic Cuisines, two books that I own and love, as well as the book Flavor Principles, which I do not own but predict I would love, since the most compelling part of the lovable EC is the index in the beginning that describes the different “flavor principles” that make a dish recognizable as part of the canon of a particular cuisine. It’s brilliant stuff to think about.

Like, cinnamon and tomato, that is Greek. And one Chinese combo that makes a flavor principle is soy sauce, ginger, and rice wine, while fish sauce, chilis, and lime spells Thai. This is building block knowledge for anyone who loves to cook. Or eat! Are you people as excited about this as I am? What are your flavor principles? Today, I feel like mine might include cinnamon, raisins, and almonds, with something salty and a little acid (like tomatoes, or lemon, NOT DRUGS ACID, MOMMY) thrown in for good measure. And some heat.

I don’t love the conceit of Crossroads as much (simply because, how could I, Ms. Rozin? How could I?), but it’s still pretty awesome, because it documents recipes that result when one cuisine bumps up against another. This isn’t fusion, which is fun but fakity, but a catalog of real dishes that people eat in real places. Like East Africa. This book is the source of my favorite curry, Shrimp with Cashews in Spicy Coconut sauce.

Basically, it’s Indian spices gracing the East African flavor principle of coconut, tomatoes, and hot pepper. The olive oil is Portuguese, and cashews are Portuguese via Brazil.

In brief, saute in EVOO a base of onions, garlic, and ginger cooked with cayenne for heat, sweetness, and savoriness, then simmered with tomato for body and acidity, then seasoned with salt, pepper, cumin, and coriander for depth of flavor, coconut milk for some creaminess, supplemented by shrimp and nuts for protein and texture, finished with lemon for brightness, and dressed with cilantro for color and freshness. Plus, in our house, we add okra around about the tomato step (for fiber and those slickery little beads?)

This is an absolutely incredible dish, and like most recipes I like, it teaches you a process and once you know the process, you could switch in a different protein, or add different vegetables. (I like it with eggplant, added between the cayenne and the tomatoes, or broiled separately and added at the shrimp step, but then again I pretty much like everything with eggplant.) And it’s super easy, once you’ve wrapped your brain around the process. I always find that’s the most challenging part of cooking: figuring out the ways to be efficient about it, and with experience comes efficiency, and with efficiency, anxiety is dissipated. So, I love this recipe, and I love this book, but honestly? I don’t cook too much from it, which doesn’t make sense.

So the other day I browsed it again and found one for a sauce using these DELIGHTFUL ingredients, all of which we had on hand, because, read the parentheticals.

  • 1/3 Slivered almonds, toasted (crucial to oatmeal, but not the toasted part: I would freak out and die if I had to toast nuts before I could eat breakfast)
  • 2 T pickled jalapenos (a prime taco enhancer)
  • ½ C cilantro (good for many things, but procured for the curry mentioned above, made earlier this week when we needed something spicy to kick our colds)
  • 4 cloves garlic, RAW (it’s 2010 and I live in a city and who would I be without garlic?)
  • pinch salt (duh)
  • ½ C extra virgin olive oil (stands to reason that I’ve got to have some sort of moistening ingredient around that isn’t butter.

Put everything save the evoo in a food processor and pulse til coarse. Then stream in the oil. I address tarator, romesco, and pesto, as well as this sauce when I shout from the rooftops I LOVE YOU NUT-BASED SAUCES! Rozin claims that this one is great on hot green beans, or cauliflower, or cold shrimp, or baked or broiled fish, and that it’s common in Mexico, and that it’s a conflation of Spanish nut-based sauces (romesco) and spicy nut or seed based sauces of ancient Mexico (mole).

We got some cod last night, rubbed it with this sauce, and baked in a cast iron pan 425 for a very short time. Specifically, the amount of time needed for me to nurse a father-pajama’d Henry and put him in his crib. Oh, with chopped mixed olives on top. Olives on the fish, rather than the baby, though I’d by no means swear that the baby didn’t have any olives on him. (His last pre-nursing action was to grab a slice of green olive, shove it into his mouth, then spit it five feet down onto Matthew’s sock.)

Regarding the fish, I threw some steamed carrots into the pan around the edges at the end, just to heat them up again, and served it over brown rice with arugula salad on the side. This is a really delicious, compelling, well-balanced sauce, that will keep for a while in the fridge, but you (I) want a lot in every bite. So maybe keep the fish simple with salt, pepper, evoo, olives, and maybe some lemon, and dip your carrots (or beans or cauliflower) into vaster quantities of the sauce than you’d get with just a mouthful of fish with this as an accent.

If you’re still not getting enough of the sauce, feel free to grab some in your fist, and slurp it.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. March 5, 2010 4:31 pm

    If you get another cat, can you please name it evoo??

    I love reading what you write about food. And, someday, when I cook, it’ll really come in handy!!

  2. Kelly Allard permalink
    March 5, 2010 5:04 pm

    Those books sound very interesting. At this very minute, the flavor profile I am craving is walnut oil, pressed garlic, and balsamic vinegar sopped up by a baguette. 😛

  3. secret admirer permalink
    March 9, 2010 9:27 am

    when one culture cuisine knocks up against another one, like you say, what results? a culinary car wreck? how do the flavor principles maintain their integrity when they get smooshed together–or do they create other flavor principles?

    • March 9, 2010 12:09 pm

      Good question, SA! Flavor principles are like the foundation of a house. They don’t stand alone. But (and this breaks down the foundation of a house metaphor) they help you recognize what something tastes like. So if the East Africans are using tomato and coconut and chili peppers, adding nuts and some well-placed coriander isn’t going to mess it up, it can make it better! It’s like people travel through the world bringing their special things, like tomatoes, or peanuts, or cilantro, and then the rest of the world is enhanced by these excellent things. Afghanistan is an excellent example of a crossroads cuisine, because people traveled through and brought noodles from China and spices from India and Afghans used these things with their own natural produce, like eggplant and pumpkin, as well as yogurt, and the result is . . . a superior takeout option!

  4. March 11, 2010 11:35 am

    Mmm, I wish we had an Afghan takeout option here. I love when the drinks taste like spices and the desserts taste like roses. Right now I am working on a flavor principle of dates, oranges, nuts, cinnamon, and… of course… greens. Preferably mustard.

  5. March 16, 2010 2:16 pm

    Sorry yo,

    Names taken.

    • March 16, 2010 10:01 pm

      Wow! So, I think that you meant to put this on the Zoaster post, rather than the Flavor Principles post. Anyhow I see that you are creating a lamp out of a cheese grater, among other projects. So, I see no reason why you shouldn’t next tackle a chicken-cooking device using an El Camino and a tollbooth. Zoom forth and make delicious chicken for the world, Zoasterboy! 🙂

      • December 10, 2010 10:42 pm

        Yeah! Whoops. I just ate some chicken and rice today.

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