Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Creating a Global Pantry

Exploring a new cuisine can be exciting and intimidating. Flavors and ingredients are sometimes unfamiliar, and the techniques can be tricky. But trying new food is an adventure, and it’s less stressful when you realize that the strange is not so strange at all.

American food is a mishmash of influences, primarily western European: English, French, German, and Italian. We use lots of parsley, oregano, garlic, and onions in our everyday cooking, with a little sage thrown in at Thanksgiving. So do many other cultures.

When I first started cooking Indian food, I was worried that I would blow a week’s pay on spices just to learn a few dishes. Not true. I found after reading a few recipes that I had several of the Indian staple ingredients in my kitchen already. The same was true when I first tried Caribbean and Middle Eastern.

As you can imagine, many spices and/or staples are used in a variety of cuisines--and therefore worth your investment. Dried chilies, cayenne/red chili powder, and cumin make endless appearances across nationalities. If you like fiery, flavorful food, you won’t be sorry you splurged on the big bag of dried chilies. They’ll take you all the way around the world.

Fresh items like garlic and onions are featured in nearly every culture. You’ll almost always need one or both of these alliums. Other chart-topping fresh ingredients are parsely, cilantro, and ginger.

Sure, there are some exotics that are specific to particular regions, and as you advance, you may want to indulge in mango powder and a box of Kaffir lime leaves from the Internet. But to get started, your local grocery, spice market, and ethnic shop are all you need.

To create this list, I read over 200 recipes to cull the most commonly used staple ingredients, primarily spices, of 10 regional cuisines. (I purposefully left out our western European favorites, Italian and French.) Once you have these staples in your pantry, if you don't already, you'll be ready to begin countless culinary adventures, jet-setting around the globe without leaving your kitchen.

The Global Pantry

Mexican/South American
achiote (annato)
corn tortillas
cumin
dried beans
dried chilies (ancho, serrano)
corn meal/masa harina
oregano (Mexican varietal, if available where you live)
rice
Fresh ingredients: chilies (poblano, habenero, and jalapeno), cilantro, epazote, garlic, lemons, limes, onion
Extras: adobo, sazon, recaito
Recipes: Esquites, Fresh Salsas, Quick Red Posole with Beans

Caribbean/Central American
allspice
bay leaf
coconut milk
cumin
dried beans
oregano
rice
thyme
Fresh ingredients: cilantro, garlic, ginger, lemon, lime, onion, Scotch bonnet/habanero peppers
Recipes: Nuyorican Rice and Beans, Gallo Pinto, Jamaican Cook-up Rice with Callaloo

Eastern European
bay leaf
bulgar
caraway seeds
thyme
vinegar
Fresh ingredients: dill, garlic, onion, parsley, sour cream
Recipes: Kasha with Root Vegetables, Sweet Potato Kugel, Red Cabbage with Apples

Greek/Mediterranean
bay leaf
clove
dill
oregano
rice
vinegar
Fresh ingredients: garlic, mint, onion, parsley, yogurt
Extras: grape leaves
Recipes: Greek Tofu Salad, Greek Antipasto Pita, Tzatzki

North African
cayenne
cinnamon
coriander
cous cous
cumin
dried beans
lentils
rice
turmeric
Fresh ingredients: garlic, ginger, onion
Recipes: Roasted Butternut Squash with Moroccan SpicesNorth African-style Chick Pea SaladTunisian Beans and Greens

Middle Eastern
bulgar
cayenne
chick peas
coriander
cumin
lentils
paprika
tahini
turmeric
Fresh ingredients: cilantro, garlic, mint, onion, parsley
Recipes: Falafel, Shaksouka, Chicken Shawarma

Indian
basmati rice
coriander seed
cumin seed
dried chick peas
dried chilies/cayenne
garam masala
mustard seed
turmeric
Fresh ingredients: chilies, cilantro, garlic, ginger, onion
Extras: asafetida, cardamom, curry leaves, mango powder
Recipes: Cauliflower with Garlic, Ginger, and Green Chilies, Beets and Greens Curry with Chick Peas, Pindi Chana

Southeast Asian
cinnamon
coriander
cumin
jasmine rice
sesame oil
soy sauce
Fresh ingredients: chilies, cilantro, garlic, ginger, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, onion, parsley, Thai basil
Extras: peanuts, tamarind paste
Recipes: Indonesian Curry Bean Stew, Noodles with Lime and Peanut Sauce, Tofu Bánh Mì

Chinese
dried chilies
rice
rice vinegar
sesame oil
sesame seeds
soy sauce
Szechuan peppercorns
Fresh ingredients: cilantro, garlic, ginger, onion, parsley
Extras: Chinese Five Spice, fermented black beans, rice noodles, wheat noodles
Recipes: Hot and Sour Soup with Baby Bok Choy, Vegetable Lo Mein, Orange Sesame Stirfry with Shirataki Noodles

Japanese
dark sesame oil
dried chilies
kombu seaweed
miso (soybean paste)
rice
rice vinegar
sesame seeds
soy sauce
Fresh ingredients: garlic, ginger, onion
Extras: Japanese Seven Spice, mirin, nori and wakame seaweed, sake, wasabi
Recipes: Vegetarian Miso Soup, Miso Mashed Potatoes, Bare Bones Miso Soup

Resources/Further Reading
International Vegetarian Union Recipes
Cook’s Thesaurus Herb & Spice Mixes
Rick Bayless’ Mexican Food Glossary
Hooked on Heat: Intro to Indian—Know Your Spice
Just Hungry—Back to Japanese Basics
Tigers and Strawberries: Staple Ingredients of the Chinese Pantry
How to Stock the Middle Eastern Pantry

Readers, what’s missing? Are there must-haves missing from this list? What international cuisines need more love? The comments await your expertise.

~~~

If you dug this article, you may also dig
Pantry of the Gods
Save Money on Seasoning: Make Your Own Mix
When to Clean Out the Pantry

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8 comments:

krista {urbanite jewelry} said...

oh my word. i LOVE this post! this is so so so brilliant! thanks!

Diane said...

I cook a lot of Indian, and I would probably disagree with the list a bit. Fenugreek (both leaves and seeds) and fennel are critical, and kalongi (nigella) is a good to have. Cinnamon and cloves are also pretty important. Parsley is NEVER used in Indian cooking, but cilantro is essential as a fresh ingredient.

I don't buy garam masala as it goes stale quickly, but use whole spices to make my own and grind it.

Nicolas said...

A good source of information. Good tips and good solutions. Something for everyone!

Leigh said...

Diane, you're right! Parsley is an error; I added it onto the Indian list by mistake. It's fixed!

Now that I'm going deeper into Indian cooking, I find that I use fenugreek and fennel more, but at first, I got a lot of mileage out of mustard, cumin, and coriander seeds.

I also agree about making mixes from scratch, however, if you're going to buy a mix, garam masala gives more bang per buck than "curry powder."

Thanks krista!

Anna N said...

Great post! @Diane, right on about Indian spices. It varies since there are so many regional cuisines that we gringos call Indian food. (What's the equivalent of gringo for Indian food?) Like, if you're making Bengali food, the essential spice mix is panch phoron -- fenugreek, fennel, nigella (kalonji), black mustard, and cumin seeds -- but food from south India often uses curry leaves and coconut.

If you're including dried beans in the pantry list I would definitely add dal, or split beans/lentils, which are really common and as a bonus they cook conveniently fast.

And for people who want to cook Indian food but only have space/budget for a few spices, the cookbook "5 Spices, 50 Dishes" by Ruta Kahate is pretty great. The only pantry spices you need are coriander, cumin, mustard, cayenne pepper, and turmeric.

debbie koenig said...

Love, love, love this post! This makes it so easy to wing it when you want a particular kind of ethnic food but don't feel like using a recipe.

lynnea said...

Thank you for creating this post!!
I am currently a college student at UW Oshkosh and I love to cook. I hate buying spices because I never know which ones are good to have. I will give this spice list a try :)

Lady Amalthea said...

Brilliant list! I find that sometimes it's more cost-effective to make my own spice blends and sometimes to buy them already blended. It just depends on how often you'd use all the components!

And I use both fennel seeds and cumin in almost everything I make.