What makes something taste Italian or Cajun or Moroccan? Here’s a quick guide to understanding flavor profiles and how ingredients work together to define various cuisines.
What is a flavor profile, anyway? At its most basic, a flavor profile is made up of ingredients that help define the common flavors found within a specific cuisine.
What ingredients come to mind when you think of Italian food? Given a few minutes to think about it, you’ll likely respond with the following: basil, tomatoes, garlic, olives, pine nuts, fennel, parsley, balsamic vinegar, white beans and mozzarella. All are part of the flavor profile of Italian cuisine. It’s that simple.
Why it’s important to understand flavor profiles
Once you get the gist of flavor profiles and command a few basic cooking techniques, you’re on your way to being able to cook without a recipe. Let’s say you have a simple fillet of fish and a cup of rice. Cloak the fish in sesame seeds and pan-fry it, then serve with rice, soy sauce and seaweed flakes. You’re hitting Japanese notes.
Take that same piece of fish or chicken, coat it with blackening spices and pan-fry it quickly. Serve with a wedge of lemon and rice, and you’re in Cajun country. That same fish seasoned with tandoori spice and served with rice and a piece of naan bread? You’ve wandered into Indian cuisine. That’s the basic essence of using flavor profiles.
The list below is hardly exhaustive; the world has some 200 countries, each with its own cuisine and many with regional variations. Basque cuisine is vastly different from the classic dishes from Provence, but they’re both French, for instance. So consider this a shorthand reference to a few culinary stereotypes just to get you started. Don’t overdo it. Try incorporating two to four ingredients to tilt a flavor profile in that general direction. Want a printable version of this cheat sheet to flavor profiles? Download it here.
dark roux, Blackening spice, onions, celery, green pepper, tomatoes, parsley, cayenne, Cajun spice blends, blackening seasonings, lemon, scallions, andouille sausage, crab, shrimp
allspice, hot habanero peppers, garlic, rum, jerk seasoning, corn, plantains, mace, pineapple, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves, saffron, vanilla, coconut, citrus
soy sauce, chili oil, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, water chestnuts, Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, hoisin sauce, five-spice blend, fish sauce, rice vinegar, red bean paste, pork, straw mushrooms, tea, pickled vegetables
butter, shallots, onions, celery, carrots, thyme, tarragon, herbs de Provence, Fine herbs, bay leaves, chives, chervil, capers, red and white wine, truffle, soft cheeses, Dijon mustard, mushrooms, cream
kimchi, sesame oil, gochujang, kochukaru, eggs, kochujang, bonito flakes, tofu, bulgogi spice, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, seaweed, rice wine, noodles, dried anchovies
tandoori spices, garam masala, curry, yogurt, coconut milk, basmati rice, tamarind, cardamom, cumin, coriander, cilantro, fennel, garlic, saffron, fenugreek, dried chilies
garlic, onions, celery, basil, pesto, Italian herb blend, prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, mozzarella cheese, pine nuts, tomatoes, artichokes, olives, olive oil, oregano, lemon, fennel, flat-leaf parsley, red pepper flakes, rosemary, white beans, balsamic vinegar
miso, sesame seed oil, sesame seeds, rice vinegar, sake, soy sauce, wasabi, ginger, seaweed (including kombu, Nori and wakame), Mirin (sweet sake), teriyaki sauce, bonito flakes, dashi, pickled vegetables, tofu
oregano, lemon, olives, tuna, rosemary, bay leaves, thyme, olive oil, lamb, garlic, feta cheese, tomatoes, red onions, fish, shellfish (other countries along the Mediterranean have similar flavor profiles)
cumin, chili powder, hot sauce, green peppers, oregano, lime, garlic, onions, celery, cilantro, tomatoes, scallions, black beans, fajita spices, Cheddar cheese, avocado
Middle Eastern/West Asian or Levantine
dates, honey, sesame seeds, mint, prunes, sumac, turmeric, cinnamon, olives, Baharat spice, parsley, pine nuts, pomegranates, pistachios, yogurt (note: this includes Arab, Iraqi, Iranian, Israeli, Lebanese and Turkish cuisine which for geographical and historical reasons, share similar ingredients and flavor profiles)
mint, lemon, harissa, ras-al-hanout, saffron, turmeric, parsley, cilantro, honey, olives, almonds, dates, raisins, chickpeas, eggplant, green bell peppers, carrots, lentils, onion, ground ginger, paprika, cumin, cayenne, figs
ginger, garlic, scallions, lemongrass, cilantro, fish sauce, shrimp paste, soy sauce, coconut milk, sesame oil, lime, oyster sauce, galangal, hot chili peppers, vinegar
olive oil, saffron, paprika, chorizo, ham, sherry vinegar, garlic, olives, anchovies, peppers, olives, tomatoes, Manchego cheese, piquillo peppers, eggs, almonds, tuna
okra, peanuts, yams, hot peppers, tomatoes, onions, rice, cassava, plantains, black-eye peas, palm nut oil, ginger, millet, coriander, thyme
ginger, garlic, scallions, shallots, lemongrass, Thai basil, cilantro, fish sauce, shrimp paste, soy sauce, coconut milk, sesame seeds, sesame oil, rice or sweet wine vinegar, cilantro, lime, oyster sauce, galangal, hot chili peppers
Note: This study on flavor profiles tarted as an except from my book, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School with permission from Viking/Penguin Random House. It has been expanded and updated here online. Photo of spice map by Africa Studio. This page contains affiliate links.