Aromatic Bases Around the World
What is an aromatic base? While your mind may not be familiar with the term, chances are your nose and mouth are. Aromatic bases are the fragrant aromas coming from the kitchen and the deep, rich flavors you taste in cuisines across the world. Interestingly enough, whether a dish is cooked in Italy or across oceans in India, it may share many of the same base flavors that make the taste so great. Throughout cultures, the bases may have different names, ratios, or ingredients, but their spirit is the same, as is often the preparation. Generally, cooking an aromatic base involves sweating its ingredients in a designated fat until the vegetables are transparent. Letting them brown or sizzle means they are not cooking to their full flavorful extent. But now, let’s take a closer look into the flavor combinations that drive our favorite foods.
If you know anything about aromatic bases, chances are you know about mirepoix. Mirepoix (pronounced meer-pwah) can be made by sweating one part carrot, one part celery and two parts onion in butter or olive oil. Mirepoix can be used as the base of many soups, sauces and stews, and will add a rich, flavorful undertone to the food. How finely the ingredients should be chopped depends on how long they will be cooked for, where dishes that cook the mirepoix longer allow for bigger pieces. For a lighter stock, parsnips are sometimes substituted for carrots to keep the light color. Other substitutions can often be made based on the dish, with meat, garlic and mushrooms often being added to the mix.
Holy Trinity (Cajun and Creole)
Officially, the “holy trinity” of cajun and creole cooking includes onion, green bell pepper, and celery. These three ingredients create the magic of gumbo, inject the richness into jambalaya, and juice up an étouffée. Each is equally sweated in a fat of the chef’s choice for prime deliciousness.
Aromatic Chinese Base (Cantonese)
Chinese food is as diverse as its provinces. However, most chinese food that is well- known throughout the United States can be divided into two primary bases: spicy and aromatic. In the south, Cantonese cuisine has a milder, delicate base made from ginger, scallion and garlic. Leeks, shallots, chives and onions can also be added in replace or addition to scallions. Cooking these veggies together creates a light yet mouth-watering flavor palette for any cook to try out.
Spicy Chinese Base (Hunan and Sichuan)
Meanwhile, my guess is that if you see either hunan or sichuan on a menu, you know that you’re in for some spice. Bold, deep flavors are synonymous with the regions’ cuisines because of their hot bases. Chilli peppers and garlic make these dishes into the sinus-clearing meals they are.
Despite the two regions’ commonalities, there are also defining differences. In Sichuan cooking, the Sichuan peppercorn is used to add fragrance, a little spice and the trademark tingling mouth-numbing feel you get after finishing a dish. Meanwhile, Hunan dishes hold the numbness and provide some extra kick. By using fresher, bright chilli peppers instead of Sichuan’s dryer variety, the fire in a Hunan meal blazes.
The fats that these base ingredients are cooked in vary by dish, but often a flavored oil will be created by adding peanut oil or vegetable oil to a wok with peppercorns and dried chilies alone, and then straining.
While the difference between Soffritto and mirepoix is much more nuanced than China’s varieties, one defining character of an italian Soffritto is that it’s cooked in olive oil. Soffritto shares mirepoix’s base ingredients of carrots, celery and onions, but often garlic, shallots, leeks, and even a dash of sage will be added to create a more well-rounded sugo o zuppa.
Similar to Italy’s soffritto, Spain’s sofrito bears a strong resemblance to mirepoix, but with a few key differences. Sofrito is a base made of green peppers, celery and onions, cooked either in butter or olive oil. Commonly, however, garlic and tomato are added to sofrito to create more of a sauce than any other base we’ve looked into.
And now for some honorable mentions…
While there is a less official procedure for creating a base for Thai food, often a 2:1:1 ratio of basil, ginger and lemongrass will do the trick. Fresh lime juice can only add to the whizzing flavors.
Włoszczyzna, for polish meals, can be constructed using carrots, parsnips, parsley, celery and leeks.
There is no one base for all wonderful indian plates, but often an indian curry will have a base of onions, garlic and hot chiles, and perhaps a splash of ginger.
Across the world, every dish will vary, and there is no hard and fast rule for what will create the best meal. However, these bases have proved tried and true across many diverse foods, and will often add a new, rich aroma to your kitchen’s air and a beautiful symphony to your taste buds.
Cover photo source.