Mastering Flavours

Mastering the Multicultural Pantry

It’s been a while since I made an Infographic. But, after spending 55 minutes straight talking about Multicultural Flavours and sauces at this weekend’s Flavours festival, I realised that it was time to put my history teacher hat back on, to show you how easy it is to take a “hero ingredient” and change the cuisine profile completely. All you really need is this sauce… I mean source.


Cultural cuisine arose out of accessibility and function. Climate played a large part – because not only did it determine what could and could not be grown successfully, it also affected the preferences of the locals. Take for example hot food; generally, the warmer the weather, the hotter the dishes. That’s because chillies (or other members of the pepper or Solanaceae family) could be readily cultivated in equatorial areas, and because hot food helps the body cool down by turning it into an evaporative cooling machine (ie. Sweating).

By the same token, Northern European cuisines tend to use more herbs than spices, because of their temperate climate, which provides a great environment for the leafier herbs like chervil or dill. Not to mention, the spices themselves would have been an expensive indulgence brought over on the Silk Road, and saved for special occasion or used very sparingly.

Seasoning was where people had to get clever. Before salt harvesting became mechanised, pure sea salt was a luxury. It was hard to come by, and when you had it, you had to make it last. Which is why fish sauce, soy sauce – anything fermented and preserved (like cornichons or olives), became the best way of making a pinch go a long way.

Fat, too, was location-specific. Areas where cows were abundant made full use of butterfat and ghee, whereas Mediterranean kitchens preferred to keep their dairy products for cheese making and pressed their plethora of olives instead. Cuisines that based their cooking on fast and hot needed oils that could withstand the temperatures, making peanut oil and coconut oil welcome additions to their kitchens.

When it all comes down to it, most multicultural flavours and savoury dishes, regardless of cuisine can be broken down into:

  1. Fat (this adds both flavour and keeps the delicate ingredients from burning)
  2. Base (the tubers upon which the base will be formed)
  3. Spices (to compliment the dish and often have natural preservative properties)
  4. Broth (the liquid base for the sauce)
  5. Seasoning (whatever is used to bring out flavour)
  6. Garnish (for height and an extra dimension to both texture and flavour)

The “hero” is up to us, because once we’ve got the sauce all tied up, it’s really not that hard to make anything taste good. This also opens up opportunities to make choices for the greater good.

Swapping something like mussels in for finned fish every now and then means that there will be more of the latter going into the future, AND more of the former, because we’re supporting sustainable industries and products.

The other option, which I’ve really been getting into lately, is keeping the meat/fish/seafood as an accent or garnish, and letting the veggies do all the talking – something that is particularly easy to do in Autumn with all of the gorgeous gourds hanging about.

Adapting Multicultural Flavours:

For most savoury dishes the basic steps are these:

  1. Heat the pan and add the fat
  2. (optional) if you’re using meat that needs to be browned, do this now, then reserve.
  3. Pop in the base tubers (usually onion + something) and sweat off until transluscent
  4. Add the spices (or aromats) and stir until fragrant
  5. Add the “hero”, then the broth, bring to the boil, then bring down to a simmer and cook.
  6. Season to taste.
  7. Garnish.

There will always be outliers – anomalies within cuisines that will make us scratch our heads. But, once you’ve got the basics down pat, you can start to experiment and get fancy. We’re lucky enough to have a myriad of great books on multicultural flavours to choose from at Essential Ingredient, and some older titles even become available in the great Prahran Market Honour Library. If you’re after specific biblio-recs, go with Kylie Kwong for Chinese, David Thompson for Thai, Julia Child for French and Marcella Hazan for Italian.

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