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, 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.
The list below is hardly exhaustive; the world has some 240 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 from a cuisine group to tilt a flavor profile in that general direction.
dark roux, onions, celery, green pepper, tomatoes, parsley, cayenne, Cajun spice blends, blackening seasonings, lemon, scallions, andouille sausage, crab, shrimp
butter, shallots, onions, celery, carrots, thyme, tarragon, herbs de Provence, bay leaves, chives, chervil, capers, red and white wine, truffle, soft cheeses, Dijon mustard, mushrooms, cream
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, 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), 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
cumin, chili powder, hot sauce, green peppers, oregano, lime, garlic, onions, celery, cilantro, tomatoes, scallions, black beans, Cheddar cheese, avocado
mint, lemon, harissa, saffron, turmeric, parsley, cilantro, honey, olives, almonds, dates, raisins, chickpeas, eggplant, green bell peppers, carrots, lentils, onion, ground ginger, paprika, cumin, cayenne, figs
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
Where this information came from
This is excerpted from The Kitchen Counter Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn with permission from Viking/Penguin. It has been updated and expanded here online.