Aromatics are the root of all good cooking. In simple terms, aromatics are the vegetables and herbs that provide a dish underlying flavor and aroma. Though these ingredients can be the star in other dishes, when they play the role of aromatic, they are the fundamental supporting cast. Common examples include onion, garlic, bell pepper, carrot, and celery. Aromatics are usually sauteed (and seasoned with salt and pepper) at the start of cooking the dish to bring out the best flavor. Many cultures have a staple set of aromatics serving as the root of their cuisine. Today we will explore these combinations which you can apply to your cooking.
The most classic aromatic combination of Western cuisine is certainly the French mirepoix. Consisting of two parts diced onion, one part diced and peeled carrot, and one part diced celery, mirepoix is either sweat (softened wit out browning) or browned in oil or butter. In Italy, this is called soffritto. It differs from mirepoix in that it is instead browned in olive oil and is more often enhanced with garlic.
The applications are endless. I use it as the base for nearly all soups and stews (the exception being Asian style soups) as well as for a variety of sauces. Mirepoix can also be turned up with the addition of garlic, leeks, and tomatoes.
Common in both Cajan and Creole cooking (and generally in the American South), the holy trinity mimics the mirepoix but replaces carrot with diced green bell pepper. The revered combination is the starting point for dishes like gumbo and jambalaya. I like to use it for any Southern or Western staples, like shrimp and grits or chili.
We cannot discuss the holy trinity without discussing West African cooking, a founding father of Southern cuisine. In West Africa, especially Nigeria, Ata Lilo refers tomato, onion (preferably red), habaneros or scotch bonnets, and red bell pepper, blended, then cooked down into a paste. Ata Lilo is the base of West African staples like jollof rice. You can also see a direct line from Ata Lilo to Creole cooking, as Creole food, unlike Cajan food, adds tomatoes to the holy trinity.
Sofrito, not to be confused with Italian “soffritto,” is the root of Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan cuisine. Also known as sofregit, it consists of equally parts chopped onion and chopped tomato, also well as copious amounts of garlic and red bell pepper, cooked in olive oil until very soft and brown. Use it as the base for fish stews, chorizo dishes, and even dishes from Latin and South America. Variants on sofrito are common in most places previously occupied by Spain or Portugal, from Brazil to the Philippines.
Asia is the world’s largest continent yielding vast diversity. Yet there is one common thread. Though their applications, cooking methods, and supplemental ingredients differ, most Asian cuisines start with two powerhouses: garlic and ginger. Let’s explore how different cultures apply them.
In Indian as well as across the Middle East, equal parts garlic and ginger are processed into a paste. The paste is then either cooked as the base of a stew or braise, or rubbed onto meat before cooking. In India, this paste is known as Adu Lasan and starts off favorites like butter chicken and biryani. In the Middle East and Central Asia, kabob marinades are built on a foundation of garlic and ginger paste.
Moving to Southeast Asia, garlic and ginger are not purred but minced. They are generally married with lemongrass (and sometimes small chilies and bell pepper), then fried or sauteed. These flavors are key to Vietnamese and Thai cooking. They provide an underlying flavor and aroma to dishes like pho, pad Thai, and Thai basil red snapper.
Food varies greatly across China’s many regions, yet ginger and garlic carry across many of their respective cuisines. In Cantonese cooking, what most Americans would think of as “Chinese food,” minced garlic and ginger is joined by two parts chopped green onion and stir fried to begin dishes like beef and broccoli to chicken chow mein. Substitute the green onion for chilies and peppercorns, and you have the root of mouth-numbing Szechuan cooking.