Does the idea of making Asian dishes scare you? Do you see photos of Moroccan food or Cajun food and think you could never make those? Do you think that Italian food just has lots of garlic and basil? Well, fret no more. All the different ethnic recipes might seem exotic and best left to the professionals, but in reality, it’s really easy to make them yourself. Many cultures use the same small amount of ingredients so often, they become a “flavor profile” for that ethnic menu. Once you learn which flavors tend to go together and become familiar with the different ingredients, herbs, and spices that may be new to you, it will be a cinch to start developing your own international culinary talents. This is by no means a definitive list but it’s a great start to the most common ethnic flavor profiles.
1. Italian Cuisine
Yes, there is garlic but not necessarily a lot and there is so much more. Italian cooking is probably best known for its use of garlic, olive oil, and basil – the three best ingredients to make the perfect pizza. Italian seasoning blends tend to have herbs such as oregano, basil, marjoram, tarragon, and parsley in them. Southern Italian cooking is spicier than that of Northern Italian and uses more anchovies and red pepper flakes. Other flavors familiar to Italian cuisine include onions, tomatoes, artichokes, olives, lemon, fennel, rosemary, red wine vinegar, and balsamic vinegar. Vegan versions of mozzarella and Parmesan cheese will also enhance your Italian fare. Try making Ooey-Gooey Baked Ziti or Spaghetti with Vegan Mozzarella-Stuffed Meatballs.
2. Mediterranean/Greek Cuisine
Mediterranean food is some of the healthiest and most flavorful food on the planet. As in Italian food, garlic, oregano, olive oil, and tomatoes are commonly used in dishes. Greek cuisine, in particular, is known for its use of rosemary, thyme, bay leaves, and red onions. Nothing says Greek food more than the fresh citrus flavors of lemon and the tangy, salty yumminess of vegan feta cheese. Indulge in the deliciousness of Spanakopita or Spetsofai, a Greek stew with vegan sausage and peppers.
3. French Cuisine
We can’t talk about cooking and not mention French cuisine. Classic French dishes usually have olive oil, garlic, basil, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, and sage or you can buy herbs de Provence which is a combination of these herbs and sometimes, lavender. Other common ingredients are tarragon, shallots, capers, and Dijon mustard. French cooking uses a lot of wine and lots of butter, so it’s a good thing there are great vegan wines and recipes for vegan butter available to us. Who doesn’t love a warm and hearty French Onion Soup? Or go classic with a Seitan and Mushroom Bourguignon.
4. Spanish/Mexican Cuisine
This is my favorite type of food. I have a special fondness for anything spicy and if I had to choose my one favorite spice, it would be cumin. To me, cumin is the spice that makes food smell Spanish. Other common flavors in Spanish food are chile powder, oregano, Mexican oregano, garlic, onions, and cilantro. Make an Artichoke Paella filled with rice and veggies. All sorts of pepper and chiles are used in Latin cooking such as ancho chile, poblano peppers, jalapeños, and Serrano chiles. If you love Mexican food, then you know that common flavors include lime, hot sauce, scallions, tomato, and avocado. Try these flavors out in Chile No Carne or a Mexican Tofu Scramble.
5. Chinese Cuisine
Making your own Chinese food is easy so long as you have the basic ingredients to create those amazing sauces. Whether you are making Mandarin, Szechuan, or Cantonese food, keep the following ingredients on hand: garlic, fresh ginger, brown rice vinegar, mirin or sweet rice wine, low-sodium tamari, Hoisin sauce, toasted sesame oil, miso, agave nectar, and Sriracha hot sauce. Other common ingredients include peanuts, cashews, sesame seeds, and scallions. Enjoy these flavors in Sesame Tofu, Pomegranate Sweet and Sour Tempeh, or Dim Sum Soy Sauce Chow Mein Noodles.
6. Japanese Cuisine
The flavors of Japanese food are light and delicate. Umami adds flavor and depth. Common ingredients in Japanese cooking include miso, sake, soy sauce, rice vinegar, mirin, sweet rice wine, ginger, sesame seed oil, sesame seeds, and wasabi. You will love the flavors of this Soba Noodle Salad with Avocado and Mango and this Roasted Garlic, Miso and Greens Soup. And what could be more fun than learning to make your own Vegan Sushi Rolls?
7. Indian Cuisine
Indian food is warm and exotic. There are some very bold flavors in Indian cuisine and if you have the basics, you can be making your own Indian dishes in no time. Most Indian dishes begin with by toasting the seeds of spices such as cumin, mustard, and coriander, though you can certainly use the dried versions if that’s what you have. Cardamom pods, fenugreek, fennel, and turmeric are other common spices. Garam masala is a combination of spices and everyone makes their own a different way but it usually has cumin, coriander, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, and cardamom. Garlic, fresh ginger, and onion are used as aromatics and dried chiles are often used for heat especially in Southern Indian food. Curry pastes and powders are also common in Indian cooking and they come in various types with a wide range of spice levels. Yogurt and coconut milk are often used in Indian cuisine so you will want to have some non-dairy versions handy as well. Tandoori spice blends usually contain cumin, coriander, ginger, paprika, turmeric, salt, and cayenne pepper. Try your hand at a Vegan Tofu Tikka Masala or Savory Indian Lentil Doughnuts.
8. Central/ South Asian Cuisine
My love of Thai food is fairly new to me. To be honest, the first time I tried it, all I tasted was peanut butter. Luckily, I found better places to eat it and now I love to make my own Thai food. When I want to prepare a Thai feast, I make sure to have lots of garlic, ginger, shallots, scallions, lemongrass, cilantro, and Thai basil for my herbs and aromatics. Curry paste comes in red, yellow, and green – each has its own taste and level of heat. Thai recipes usually use low-sodium tamari, rice or sweet wine vinegar, hot chili peppers, and coconut milk. One of the most distinctive flavors in Thai food usually comes from fish sauce, oyster sauce, or shrimp paste. Luckily, there are lots of recipes out there for vegan versions of these sauces. Street Pad Thai is delicious as are my Cold Rice Noodles in a Spicy Thai Peanut Sauce.
9. Cajun/Creole Cuisine
Another favorite of mine – I love Cajun food, Jamaican food, and Rastafarian food – pretty much anything with rice and spice makes me happy. The common flavors in these cuisines are onions, celery, peppers, chiles, tomatoes, scallions, and parsley. The spices of Cajun food includes cayenne, paprika, garlic, black pepper, oregano, and thyme. Jerk seasoning is made up of allspice, cinnamon, brown sugar, red pepper flakes, cumin, cloves, and black pepper. You can buy these pre-made blends or learn to make them yourself. These Cajun Burgers are amazing.
10. North African/Moroccan Cuisine
Casablanca. Bogey and Bacall. Amazing Moroccan food. The flavors of North African cuisine are ginger, sweet paprika, hot paprika, cumin, cinnamon, saffron, turmeric, cayenne, mint, and harissa. Ras El Hanout is a mixture of ground spices including cardamom, nutmeg, anise, mace, cinnamon, ginger, peppers, and turmeric. Moroccan dishes often include olives, raisins, dates, almonds, sesame seeds, and lemon. All those flavors are found in this Moroccan Grilled Eggplant, Onion and White Bean Spread or try this Raw Moroccan Vegetable and Chickpea Stew with Spicy Orange Cauliflower Couscous. My Moroccan Tofu in a Lemon-Olive Sauce is one of our favorites.
Think about your favorite cuisine and why it’s your favorite. What are the unique flavors and combination of ingredients that you love? Once you get a feel for how spices, herbs, and other ingredients work together, you’ll be on your way to making incredible international cuisine. Maybe you can even start hosting dinner parties with a different ethnic theme each week. Don’t forget to invite me!
Lead image source: Moroccan Tofu in a Lemon-Olive Sauce