Awakening the Flavors in Your Food

Because of increasing affluence over the past 200 years Western cooks have been able to afford to use sugar, animal fats and salt as their primary flavorings, but this has had huge health (and taste!) costs. Spices, especially the non-herbal variety, are sadly not used much in Western cuisine even today although they are now easily accessible. They can be, however, by far the least expensive, easiest to store and handle, and most delicious ingredients in your cooking. Consider this: various familiar “wet” or perishable ingredients have to be purchased weekly or monthly making up the bulk of your food bill, and then unpacked/ washed/ peeled /chopped before they’re ready to use. On the other hand, one short trip to a local or online Indian grocery store where you’ll buy a half dozen packets of basic spices (cumin, coriander, turmeric, chile, cinnamon, garam masala) will cost you under $15 total and last for over a year with regular use, enabling you to start creating a wide array of Indian, Middle-eastern, and Mexican dishes. Similarly, stocking up on some Asian flavors (miso paste, rice wine, soy sauce, toasted sesame oil) will last you many months and enable hundreds of Chinese, Japanese, or Thai dishes. Best of all, to include a spice as an ingredient in a dish all it takes is two seconds to scoop a spoonful of it onto the pan. That’s less than a few pennies and seconds per authentic, excitingly flavorful meal.

When buying spices try to get whole, raw spices – these will be the most flavorful and versatile, and will store much better. If you have a spare coffee grinder for use as a spice & seed grinder, then you can pretty much get all spices whole (except turmeric). If you only have a mortar and pestle, then I would recommend buying coriander and cloves ground instead of whole, and cumin both whole and ground. To get the freshest and least expensive spices, avoid those in tiny jars from western supermarkets; instead buy large (but not so large that you won’t be able to use them in 5 years!) packages from Indian or Middle Eastern markets.

Whole and ground spices, dry herbs, garlic and ginger have concentrated oil-soluble aromas that will not go into the food properly until released by frying in hot oil (sometimes called “blooming”). As soon as wet ingredients are added the temperature falls and the aroma extraction process stops. This is why so many good recipes begin by saying “fry spices or garlic in hot oil until fragrant, taking care not to burn the spices”. Powdered forms and chili burn easily, and should not be fried without moisture for more than a few seconds. In Indian cooking this process of imbuing oil with flavor by frying spices is known as tarka; it is either done as the first step or, in the case of soups, at the very end to be poured into the cooked soup. It is also fine to add spices after the onions have began to caramelize, as there’s plenty of oil and heat at that stage. Fresh herbs, on the other hand, should be added toward the very end of cooking to preserve their flavor.

Other time-honored ways of enhancing flavor:
·       Caramelizing (browning) & sautéing vegetables to bring out sweetness
·       Including acidic ingredients (tomatoes, citrus, wine, vinegars)
·       A splash of wine to deglaze a pan not only picks up the tasty bits on the bottom but acts as an emulsifier (blending water and oil) to create a smoother taste. Using a bit of wine in a sauce, because of the emulsifying properties, helps unite the flavors and make your tongue more receptive to detecting flavors. You can also use a bit of water to deglaze, repeating this as needed during cooking to keep all the delicate flavors in the food and prevent them sticking to the bottom.
·       Dried out cheese or rinds (scraped of any mold or wax) can be used to add flavor to soups.
·       Oil. Adding a bit of olive oil/ghee/butter (depending on the cuisine) at the end of cooking blends the flavors nicely and provides a finished smoothness, especially if very little oil was used in cooking the dish. In this way you can create a smooth and buttery tasting dish using only a tiny quantity of fat; this works particularly well with soups, sauces, and using sesame oil in stir fries. In general though, oil has been unfairly stigmatized in the U.S. (it’s only animal trans-fats and hydrogenated oil that are actually unhealthy). So if you feel that your dish is flavorful and well salted and yet still seems to be missing something, try adding more oil in the beginning or end of cooking.
·       Salt should be added during cooking until you can detect the flavor of various ingredients, not “till it tastes salty” (meaning too much salt). On the other hand adding barely any salt in expectation that each person will use what they need at the dinner table is a real disservice to what otherwise might be a perfect dish because salt needs sufficient time to permeate the and bring out flavor. I prefer to use kosher (Diamond crystal) or iodized sea salt to table salt because table salt contains calcium silicate to make it free running which probably isn’t good for you and gives this salt a metallic aftertaste.
In addition to the salty, sweet, astringent, sour flavors and aromatics above, there is something called flavor depth or unami. Unami is a Japanese term for “tastiness”. Foods high in naturally occurring glutamates (tastiness enhancers) like tomatoes, good parmesan and blue cheeses, aged balsamic, soy sauce, fish sauce, asparagus, olives, animal fats, sautéed mushrooms, seaweeds, grapefruit and green tea have lots of unami and are used to enhance the flavor of many classic dishes. Artificial MSG additives may have deservedly gotten a bad reputation, but naturally occurring glutamates are harmless, contributing to our sense of satisfaction and satiety. In fact, the main objection of western meat eaters that vegetarian food will be less tasty is easily overcome when the unami that used to come from animal fats is substituted for unami from other sources - think of the tempting and deeply satisfying dishes like pasta or pizza with good tomato sauce or a richly flavorful Asian dish.


  1. Thank you, Maria. This is great! I'm so hungry now :)



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The goal of this blog is to celebrate delicious food that's also practical. Contrary to certain foodie trends, we believe there is no reason for amazing food to be expensive or complicated or time consuming.

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