There’s a ‘secret’ to making Asian, African, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes that most cooks not from those regions overlook when trying to learn those cuisines. But it’s an ‘open secret’ and, once I’ve revealed it, you’ll be surprised you’ve overlooked it for so long…
I’m going to make a comparison you’ve probably never considered before to illustrate my central point. And I suspect you’ll feel as embarrassed as I did the first time it was pointed out to me.
First, a little history…
Consider this: All regional cooking styles and flavour traditions were originally developed by regular folks leading regular lives. The only difference between them and us is that they lived in more primitive times, when the women stayed home and basically cooked all day while the men went out to hunt, fish, tend livestock or work in the fields or paddies. There was time to devote to gathering and grinding and mixing all the Herbs and Spices associated with the regional specialties we know and love today.
But now, things are different. Most families have two working adults who spend at least a third of each working day outside the home and don’t have a great deal of time to devote to preparation of their meals. That’s one reason Fast Food, Frozen Entrées and other convenience Foods are so popular.
But recently there’s been a wave of renewed interest in home cooking and using fresh Foods, and folks have been looking for ways to make this new love affair with cooking possible in the short periods of time available in our busy days for Food prep. One upshot has been the re-appearance of slow cookers and pressure cookers, and the emergence of the phenomenon we call Meal Kits.
We’re not alone
And the same is true in urban centres across the globe, including places where the most complex cuisines still reign supreme. What do busy modern cooks there do when confronted with a recipe that calls for a dozen or more Herbs or Spices?
Now for the comparison I mentioned at the top of this post: We’ve long used dry Soup mixes, prepared Spice blends and other conveniences – some as simple and taken-for-granted as Chili Powder, ‘Italian Spice’, ‘Ranch Flavour’ packets and – yes – even Sloppy Joes Mix. And each regional cuisine tradition has its own equivalents.
For example, India has more than 20 officially recognised regional cuisines. Each features unique flavours and prep styles. And each has its own shortcuts, including Masalas, or prepared Spice blends, that can cut meal prep time and effort dramatically. Even more pressed by the clock? You can get pre-blended and prepared ‘Cooking Sauces’, ready to go out of the jar. Just add Veggies and Protein, and simmer.
Case study: Millie, my hair dresser, is Jamaican, and every time she goes ‘home’ to visit family, she brings back a case of her favourite Jerk Spice Mix. You can get other such blends here in Caribbean Grocery stores but they’re just not the same. Millie was brought up on her favourite, and she’s very particular.
There’s no rule to say you can’t customize these prepared flavour blends by adding a little more of this Spice or that Herb to suit your own taste. For example, I like to add a little extra Cumin and Coriander to the basic prepared Ancho Chili Powder Mix I rely on for my quick Chili, Refried Beans, Tex Mex BBQ Rub and various Casserole recipes.
Ultimately, you’ll want to make your own Masalas and other flavour blends when you have the time to measure out large quantities of the constituent Herbs and Spices and run them through your Spice grinder. Bottle them like you would any other Spice in your flavour cupboard and use as needed.
So, when in Rome…
… Do as the Romans or Thais or Indians or Jamaicans do when in their home environments: take the flavour shortcuts and enjoy, rather than missing out on these and other global cuisine delights!
~ Maggie J.