Thursday, April 9, 2009

All about the ingredients

I've been noticing a sort of informal debate on the food blogs I frequent regarding ingredients and technique. Some fall on the side of technique: it doesn't matter what you start with, but if you use the right techniques it'll be delicious. Others take the other position: it doesn't matter how you cook it, but if you have the right ingredients it'll be delicious. Perhaps neither extreme is really accurate, but this blog certainly lies on the "ingredient" side of the spectrum. By "ingredients" here, I really mean flavorings, sauces, and spices, as for me they define what I eat. Basically every dish I make has onions, but some have turmeric, some have soy sauce, and some have lemon juice. To give you an idea, here is the list of the contents of my spice cabinet, from the common to the exotic.

Black pepper
Dried red chilies
Sesame seeds
Mustard seeds
Paprika (three different kinds, in fact)
Soy sauce
Lemon juice
Sesame oil
Dried thyme
Dried oregano
Chili powder (this one has chiles, onion, garlic, cocoa, oregano, cumin, cinnamon, and cloves)
Rice vinegar
Star anise
Five-spice powder - a Chinese spice mix of cinnamon, cloves, star anise, black pepper, and fennel
Sichuan pepper
Doubanjiang - salty fermented bean paste
Dark sesame paste - like tahini but using unhulled sesame seeds
Piri-piri grinder - dried birdseye peppers mixed with salt and lemon zest
Chili-bean sauce - chopped chilis mixed with fermented black beans in oil
Sambal balado - a chili paste with shallots, tomatoes, and garlic
Kecap manis - thick soy sauce made with palm sugar
Douchi - fermented soybeans
Belacan - block of fermented shrimp paste
Shrimp paste in oil

Obviously, I cook a lot of Asian food; there's quite a bit of Indian food in my kitchen as well. All of these spices and sauces give me a huge variety of dishes and tastes to choose from, even when I use the same base ingredients (onions, garlic, carrots, celery, red peppers, some other veggies) most of the time. Every time I go to one of the ethnic groceries I frequent around here, I'm on the lookout for something new and interesting to try. Since I often get cravings for starkly different cuisines, it's great to have all those options - last weekend I made goulash with good Hungarian paprika, and just tonight I sautéed up some vegetables with kecap manis and sambal. Who knows what I'll do this weekend!

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