There was a time when the only ethnic food I ate was either Jewish or Italian. Then I learned to love Chinese food but that was it. It wasn’t until my adulthood that I even tried Thai food, Jamaican food, Spanish food and Indian food which are all favorites of mine now. Still, the only times I got to enjoy these ethnic cuisines was when I went out to dinner. It seemed impossible that I could make anything that would even come close to the authentic dishes. Ethnic food may seem exotic and complicated but it really isn’t. Each cuisine has a set of ingredients, herbs and spices that they tend to use together to create their unique flavor profile. Once you become familiar with the flavor profiles for each cuisine, it becomes easy to make your own ethnic dishes. Here are tips for making ethnic dishes taste the best.
1. Chinese Cuisine
The most important tip for making your own Chinese food is to stock your pantry with the basic ingredients to make sauces. Whether you are making Cantonese, Mandarin or Szechuan food, the ingredients are basically the same. You will need low-sodium soy sauce or tamari, brown rice vinegar, mirin or sweet rice wine, Hoisin sauce, toasted sesame oil, miso, agave nectar, and Sriracha hot sauce. For aromatics, keep plenty of fresh ginger, garlic and chiles on hand. With these ingredients, you can make pretty much any Chinese sauce like Garlic Sauce as well as these 10 Awesome and Simple Saute Sauces. Other ingredients you will want include peanuts, cashews, sesame seeds, scallions and lots of fresh vegetables.
Replace the meat with vegan choices. Instead of chicken, learn The Secret to Making the Crispiest Tofu and make General Tso’s Tofu. Skip the pork and make Pomegranate Sweet and Sour Tempeh or Orange Cauliflower. Use seitan, mushrooms and other fresh veggies. Get the Secrets to Sautéing and Stir-Frying Chinese Style and read How to Make Your Own Chinese Food at Home. Before you know it, you’ll be making your own Spring Rolls with Spicy Peanut Dipping Sauce, Perfect Fried or Steamed Veggie Dumplings, Peanut Butter Spicy Noodles, and Dim Sum Soy Sauce Chow Mein Noodles. For more detailed information, see How to Make Your Own Chinese Food at Home.
2. Greek/Mediterranean Cuisine
Greek/Mediterranean food is some of the healthiest and most flavorful food on the planet. 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. Dolmathes or Stuffed Vine Leaves and Tiropitakia – Greek Cheese Hand Pies are Greek favorites. Indulge in the deliciousness of Spanakopita or Spetsofai, a Greek stew with vegan sausage and peppers. If you love meatballs, you must try Vegan Greek Keftedes. For more recipes, see 9 Heart-Healthy Vegan Greek and Mediterranean Recipes.
3. Indian Cuisine
While Indian food varies from region to region throughout India – every state and, in fact, every household, has its own style of cooking – they all share a love of healthy vegetables and spices that smell as wonderful as they taste. Indian food is warm and exotic with bold flavors and fragrant spices. To make your own Indian food, you will want to fill your spice cabinet with some or all of the wonderful, warm spices. Many Indian dishes begin by toasting the seeds of spices such as cumin, mustard and coriander, though you can also use the dried versions if that’s what you have. Other common spices are cardamom, fenugreek, fennel, turmeric and a variety of curry pastes and powders. 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. Try this Ayurvedic Garam Masala and this Punjabi Garam Masala or make your own spice blend.
Fill your pantry with Indian staples like coconut milk, rice, and chickpea flour. Make Asparagus and Saffron Biryani, Herb Roti, and Khaman Dhokla, an Indian-Style Soft Steamed Chickpea Flour Cake. You’ll want lots of legumes including lentils, beans and peas to make Simple Lentil Dal, South Indian Lentil Stew and Indian Sambar. Indian food uses lots of vegetables such as potatoes, cauliflower and eggplant. Replace any meat in recipes with tofu, tempeh or seitan like Tofu Tikka Masala, Tempeh in Spicy Onion Curry and Seitan Vindaloo. Learn how to make delicious dips, chutneys and condiments to go with your dishes. For more detailed information, see How to Make Your Own Indian Food at Home.
4. Italian Cuisine
Authentic Italian food differs significantly from that available in the United States. It may surprise people to learn that authentic Italian food is not all about garlic and cheese and most of the recipes have no more than 6 or 7 ingredients. The most commonly used herbs are parsley, rosemary, sage, and basil. While most people think of oregano as crucial to Italian dishes, it is actually used mainly in Southern Italy in its dried form. Aromatics used include garlic, onions, olives and capers as well as soffritto which is onion, carrot and celery sauteed in olive oil. Italian food uses a lot of fresh, seasonal produce. The most commonly used vegetables are bell peppers, eggplants, zucchini, artichokes, green beans, mushrooms, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, celery, carrots, peas, leafy greens and tomatoes. Use these veggies in recipes such as Cauliflower Piccata, Spaghetti Squash with Alfredo Sauce, Creamy Pumpkin and Spinach Lasagna, Minestrone Soup, Spicy Eggplant Caponata, Mozzarella-Stuffed Eggplant Meatballs, and Raw Lasagna with Cilantro Pesto, Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Marinated Veggies.
Other pantry items you will want to have plenty of include beans, lentils, rice, and pasta. With these, you can enjoy a multitude of Italian dishes such as Pasta e Fagioli, Lentil Meatballs, Lentil-Kale Risotto, Ooey-Gooey Baked Ziti and Lemon Butter Fettuccine with Parsley and Pine Nuts. When you get a craving for cheesy dishes, learn how to make your own Tofu Ricotta, Vegan Moxarella Cheese and Raw Almond Parmesan, then check out The Best Cheesy Italian Recipes Veganized! For more details and recipes, see How to Make Your Own Italian Food at Home.
5. Jamaican Cuisine
Of all cuisines, Jamaican food is my favorite, especially Ital food which is natural and avoids additives, salt, sugar and animal products. Jamaican food is rich in flavor with aromatics, herbs and spices such as cayenne, paprika, garlic, thyme, onion, scallions, black pepper, oregano, ginger, nutmeg and allspice. Jerk seasoning is a common spice blend that tastes amazing on tofu, seitan or veggies and scotch bonnet peppers are essential to Jamaican cooking. Try this Jerk Tofu recipe and these Jamaican “Beef” Patties. The beautiful tropical climate of Jamaica means there is an abundance of fruits such as mangoes, avocados, papaya, bananas, pineapple, guava, coconuts, ackee and plantains. Ackee is the national fruit of Jamaica. It is a bright red tropical fruit that has soft, creamy yellow flesh and is delicious as in this Sauteed Ackee.
Jamaican cuisine uses lots of vegetables including sweet potatoes, cassava, beans, peas, legumes and callalloo which is similar to spinach. While most of the ingredients used in Jamaican cuisine are local foods, Ital food has expanded to include foods not normally found locally. Tofu, soy chunks, vegan “meat,” and soymilk are used in Ital dishes and are usually made from scratch. Use tofu to make my Jamaican Curried Tofu with Chickpeas. For more recipes, see How to Make Your Own Jamaican (Ital) Food at Home.
6. Mexican Cuisine
Mexican food is amazing and authentic Mexican food looks a lot different than the fast-food stuff in chain restaurants. Authentic Mexican food is filled with fresh vegetables, fruits, protein, spices, vitamins and minerals and is healthy and well-balanced. Mexico uses aromatics such as onions and garlic and favors spices such as annatto, cumin, Mexican oregano, cilantro, bay, cinnamon, cloves, anise and epazote. Cocoa is used in savory dishes such as mole sauce as well as in desserts. Play with Mexican spices to make your own Delicious Fajita Seasoning that you can use on any dish such as this Mexican Lasagna. Check out “10 Mexican Spices to Spike Up Your Meals” for even more flavors. Many types of chiles are used in Mexican cuisine such as jalapeno, ancho, chipotle and serrano. They can be used fresh, whole, dried or powdered. In fact, chiles, rather than tomatoes, are the main ingredient in Mexican sauces such as my Ancho Chile Sauce (Enchilada Sauce). Use the chile pepper of your choice to make your own Raw Hot Sauce.
Mexican tortillas are flatbreads made from flour or corn. Eat them as bowls and utensils in these Cilantro Avocado Chickpea Salad Tacos and these Mini BBQ Soy Curl Taco Bowls with Pickled Onions. Put veggies and other yummy food between two and make quesadillas like these Easy Veggie Loaded Quesadillas. Learn how to make perfectly-layered vegan burritos and read “10 Ideas for Creating Delicious Veggie Fillings for Your Homemade Burritos” for inspiration. Mexican food is filled with rice, beans and vegetables. Check out 5 Easy Ways to Spruce Up Classic Rice and Beans. Be sure to make delicious salsas and guacamole to go with all your dishes. For more detailed information and lots of recipes, see How to Cook Veggies Mexican-Style.
7. Moroccan Cuisine
Moroccan cuisine is just as exotic as it sounds but don’t worry, it is really easy to make yourself. 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 as is my Delicious Casbah Tofu with Yellow Rice. For exotic sides, try this Moroccan Potato Salad with Corn and Kale and this Moroccan Sweet Potatoes with Chickpeas. Burgers go from casual to charismatic with these Moroccan Spiced Lentil Butternut Squash Burgers. Impress your guests with this beautiful Chickpea, Sweet Potato, Kale, Green Olive, Dried Fruit and Cashew Tagine. For dessert, try this Moroccan Strudels.
8. Spanish Cuisine
While the term “Spanish food” gets used as a blanket statement, Spanish cuisine differs greatly from the others that get included under that blanket. For instance, even foods that share the same name, such as tortillas, are vastly different in Spain than in other countries. Common flavors used in Spain are rosemary, thyme and oregano. Spanish paprika, saffron and parsley (not cilantro) are integral to Spanish cuisine. Spain also uses cayenne pepper, garlic (lots of garlic), onions, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, mint, parsley, sage, bay leaf, basil and vanilla. Most recipes are cooked in olive oil. One of the best-known Spanish dishes is paella, which is rice mixed with seafood, chicken, sausage, vegetables, paprika and saffron. I love to make paella with rice, vegan sausage, tofu and lots of vegetables. Try this authentic recipe for Artichoke Paella and this Campfire Paella Primavera and understand why paella is such a popular dish.
Beans and legumes are a staple of Spanish food, particularly in stews. You might not think of chickpeas when you think of Spanish food but chickpeas are an important ingredient in many Spanish dishes like Espinacas con Garbanzos. Spanish food is filled with fresh vegetables, especially peppers, eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes and potatoes. Chile peppers or pimientos are a big part of Spanish dishes. They are dried and ground into paprika, sauteed with garlic and onions, roasted and stuffed or just eaten raw. Tomatoes are used in many ways in Spain. One popular way of enjoying tomatoes is in cold soup like gazpacho. Learn how to make your own healthy gazpacho and savor this refreshing soup. Tomatoes are also used to make sofrito, a basic tomato sauce that has onions, garlic, green peppers and olive oil. Try it in this Sofrito Zucchini Pasta with Beans and Lightly Fried Plantains.
Spain uses a lot of meat, seafood and cheeses in their dishes. Tofu, tempeh and seitan can stand in for the meat used in any recipe. Chicken gets swapped out for tofu in my Chile-Rubbed Tofu and Onions over Spanish Rice. Vegetables can substitute for meat as well. I make the well-known Spanish stew, Ropa Vieja, with vegetables instead of beef. Try this Mushroom Ropa Vieja and this Jackfruit Ropa Vieja and see how “meaty” a dish can taste without meat. Spanish chorizo, which is made with garlic, paprika, cayenne, black pepper and cloves, is not the same as Mexican or Caribbean chorizo. You can use an authentic Spanish spice blend in a vegan sausage recipe to make your own chorizo or try this Tempeh Chorizo. For more detailed information and recipes, see How to Make Your Own Spanish Food at Home.
9. Thai 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. Try this Curry with Tofu and Grilled Vegetables and Purple Cauliflower Thai Green Coconut Curry with Carrot Noodles to see which you like best. 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, it’s easy to learn How to Make Vegan Fish Sauce.
Whether Thai food is new to you or you are already a fan, you must try these Vegan Chili Thai Kelp Noodles and this Thai Tofu Veggie Wrap. For vegan versions of Thai favorites, this Spicy Raw Thai Salad, Crazy Delicious Raw Pad Thai and this Street Pad Thai are delicious as are my Cold Rice Noodles in a Spicy Thai Peanut Sauce. Any dish you love can be infused with Thai flavors like these Thai Quinoa Burgers and Thai Pizza. For more details, check out How to Cook Veggies Thai-Style.
While ethnic food may seem exotic and complicated, it’s really as easy as knowing which ingredients, spices, herbs and flavors each cuisine uses to attain their signature flavor profile. Once you familiarize yourself with each cuisine, you can easily make your own ethnic dishes at home. It’s like traveling the world without ever leaving your kitchen.
Lead Image Source: Spicy Raw Thai Salad