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Say your Aunt Suzie sends you a jar of her famous (or is it infamous?) homemade quince jelly. What to do with it? Someone suggests that you try it with Manchego cheese and crackers and, sure enough, the combination is delicious. But why? One potential explanation can be found in the history of the ingredients: they come from the same geographic region and its corresponding cuisine.

This method for thinking about flavor combinations is expressed in the idiom “if it grows together, it goes together” and encompasses everything from a loose interpretation of what the French call le goût de terroir (“taste of the earth”) to what an American gourmand would term “regional cooking” for broad styles of cooking. In addition to the limitation of ingredients based on what can be grown in any given area, regional cooking also involves the culture and tradition of a region. Back to Aunt Suzie’s jelly: Manchego cheese and quince jelly both have long histories in Spain, so the pairing is likely rooted in history.

Given an ingredient, you can look at how that ingredient has been used historically in a particular culture to find inspiration. (Think of it as historical crowdsourcing.) If nothing else, limiting yourself to ingredients that would traditionally be used together can help bring a certain uniformity to your dish, and serve as a fun challenge, too. And you can extend this idea to wines to accompany your dishes, from the traditional (say, a French rosé with Niçoise salad) to modern (Aussie Shiraz with barbeque).


The older the recipe, the harder it can be. One reason is that language has changed. A lot. Take this example (also taken from Project Gutenberg) for apple pie from The Forme of Cury, published around 1390 A.D.:

Tak gode Applys and gode Spycis and Figys and reysons and Perys and wan they are wel brayed coloure wyth Safron wel and do yt in a cofyn and do yt forth to bake well.

Almost as bad as a condensed tweet, this translates to: “Take good apples and good spices and figs and raisins and pears and when they are well crushed, color well with saffron and put in a coffin (pie pastry) and take it to bake.” (The “coffin”—little basket—is an ancestor to modern-day pie pastry and would not have been edible at that point in time.) Still, as a starting point for an experiment, the idea of making a mash of apples and pears, some dried fruit, spices, and saffron suggests not just a recipe for pie filling, but also a festive apple sauce for Thanksgiving.

Old recipes aren’t always so concise. Take Maistre Chiquart’s recipe for parma torte in Du Fait de Cuisine, 1420 A.D. He starts with “take 3 or 4 pigs, and if the affair should be larger than I can conceive, add another, and from the pigs take off the heads and thighs, and...” He goes on for four pages, adding 300 pigeons and 200 chicks (“if the affair is at a time when you can’t find chicks, then 100 capons”); calling for both familiar spices like sage, parsley, and marjoram, and unfamiliar ones such as hyssop and “grains of paradise”; and ending with instructions to place a pastry version of the house coat of arms on top of the pie crust and decorate the top with a “check-board pattern of gold leaf” (diamond-studded iPhone cases have nothing on this guy).

Modernized version of parma torte, without the gold leaf, from Du Fait de Cuisine, by Maistre Chiquart—France, 1420 A.D.

Needless to say, you’ll likely need to do some scaling and adaptation of older recipes—again, part of the fun and experimentation! For parma tortes, I worked out my own adaptation. I later found that Eleanor and Terence Scully’s Early French Cookery: Sources, History, Original Recipes and Modern Adaptations (University of Michigan Press) includes a nice adaptation.

Besides studying older recipes, you can look at traditional recipes from particular regions to see how ingredients are normally combined. Different cultures have different “flavor families,” ingredients that are thought of as having an affinity for one another. Rosemary, garlic, and lemon are pleasing together—hence, traditional dishes like chicken marinated in those ingredients. It can take time to build up a familiarity with flavor families, but taking note of what ingredients show up together on menus, bottles of salad dressings, or in seasoning packets is a good shortcut.

  Common ingredients Served with...
Chinese Bean sprouts, chilies, garlic, ginger, hoisin sauce, mushrooms, sesame oil, soy, sugar Rice
French Butter, butter, and more butter, garlic, parsley, tarragon, wine Bread
Greek Garlic, lemon, oregano, parsley, pine nuts, yogurt Orzo (pasta)
Indian Cardamom seed, cayenne, coriander, cumin, ghee, ginger, mustard seed, turmeric, yogurt Rice or potatoes
Italian Anchovies, balsamic vinegar, basil, citrus zest, fennel, garlic, lemon juice, mint, oregano, red pepper flakes, rosemary Risotto or pasta
Japanese Ginger, mirin, mushrooms, scallions, soy Rice
Latin American Chilies, cilantro, citrus, cumin, ginger, lime, rum Rice
Southeast Asian Cayenne, coconut, fish sauce, kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, lime, Thai pepper Rice or noodles

Common ingredients used in chicken dishes by a few common cuisines. (Note that not all of these ingredients would be used simultaneously.)

The ingredients used to bring balance to a dish will vary by region. For example, the Greeks use lemon juice in horta to moderate the bitterness of the dark leafy greens like dandelion greens, mustard greens, and broccoli rabe, while the Italian equivalent uses balsamic vinegar.

With even a short list of culturally specific ingredients as inspiration, you can create simple marinades and dipping sauces without too much work. Pick a few ingredients, mix them in a bowl, and toss in tofu or meat such as chicken tenderloins or steak. Allow the tofu or meat to marinate in the fridge for anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours, and then grill away.

When creating your own marinade, if you’re not sure about the quantities, give it a guess. This is a great way to build up that experiential memory of what works and what doesn’t.

Simple Greek-Style Marinade

In a bowl, mix:

¼ cup (60g) yogurt

1 tablespoon (15g) lemon juice (about ½ lemon’s worth)

1 teaspoon (2g) oregano

½ teaspoon (3g) salt

Zest of 1 lemon, minced finely


Simple Japanese-Style Marinade

In a bowl, mix:

¼ cup (70g) low-sodium soy sauce (regular soy sauce will be too salty)

2 tablespoons (10g) minced ginger

3 tablespoons (20g) minced scallions (also known as green onions), about 2 stalks

2 tablespoons (40g) honey


  Bitter Salty Sour Sweet Umami Hot
Chinese Chinese broccoli Bitter melon Soy sauce Oyster sauce Rice vinegar Plum sauce (sweet and sour) Plum sauce (sweet and sour)

Jujubes (small red dates)

Hoisin sauce
Dried mushrooms Oyster sauce Mustard

Szechwan peppers

Ginger root
French Frisée

Radish

Endive

Olives
Olives Capers Red wine vinegar Lemon juice Sugar Tomato Mushrooms Dijon mustard Black, white, and green peppercorns
Greek Dandelion greens

Mustard greens

Broccoli rabe
Feta cheese Lemon Honey Tomato Black pepper Garlic
Indian Asafetida

Fenugreek

Bitter melon
Kala namak (black salt, which is NaCl and Na2S) Lemon

Lime

Amchur (ground dried green mangoes)

Tamarind
Sugar Jaggery (unrefined palm sugar) Tomato Black pepper

Chilies, cayenne pepper

Black mustard seed

Garlic

Ginger

Cloves
Italian Broccoli rabe

Olives

Artichoke

Radicchio
Prosciutto

Cheese (pecorino or parmigiano-reggiano)

Capers or anchovies (commonly packed in salt)
Balsamic vinegar Lemon Sugar

Caramelized veggies

Raisins / dried fruits
Tomato Parmesan cheese Garlic

Black pepper

Italian hot long chilies

Cherry peppers
Japanese Tea Soy sauce

Miso

Seaweed
Rice vinegar Mirin Shitake mushrooms

Miso

Dashi
Wasabi Chiles
Latin American Chocolate (unsweetened) Beer Cheeses Olives Tamarind Lime Sugar cane Tomato Jalapeño and other hot peppers
Southeast Asian Dried tangerine peel Pomelo (citrus fruit) Fish sauce Dried shrimp paste Tamarind Kaffir limes Coconut milk Fermented bean paste Bird chili Thai chili in sauces and pastes

Examples of ingredients used by different cultures to balance out flavors. Use this chart as an inspiration to try out new combinations and take note of how the various flavors change your perceptions.

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