Ingredients may be abundant in a region, but owing to their versatility, are often used in cuisines across countries.
Coconut, Tamarind, Basil, Ginger, Lemongrass and many such ingredients may seem synonymous with Indian cuisine or at best with the strong, spicy and aromatic Thai cuisine, yet, these versatile ingredients, lend themselves effortlessly to several cuisines globally.
Coconut may be a staple in coastal states like Goa, Kerala and West Bengal, in various forms – desiccated, roasted, ground or coconut milk. Sujan Mukherjee, Executive Chef, Taj Coromandel, explains, “The best part about coconut is that it can be used in starters, soups, mains and desserts.”
Fish curry, Chicken Xacuti, Meen Moilee, Malai chingri, Cabbage foogath, are some dishes with coconut and desserts like coconut ladoos, Alle Belle, patishapta (coconut-filled pancakes), too are made with it. Indian cuisine apart, there are certain global cuisines which make use of it as well.
This versatile ingredient allows chefs to innovate too. “Confit Maguro tuna with tender coconut kernels and passion fruit dressing, vapour cooked rice steamed with coconut milk, Chilean seabass with coconut foam, Dark chocolate and coconut fondant with jaggery, are some of my favourites with coconut,” Chef Mukherjee declares.
Thai food, Sri Lankan and Caribbean cuisine, are replete with coconut. Scraped coconut makes its way into several Sri Lankan curries, amidst an array of flavours that the cuisine boasts of. Mallum is made from shredded leaves (kale, mustard greens, cabbage) with scraped coconut, lime juice, onion, chili and fish. A coconut roti with sauce, is equally popular in Sri Lanka. And of course several Sri Lankan sweets are made with desiccated coconut.
Coconut milk is widely used in Caribbean cuisine to add volume, creamy texture and flavour to a dish. It is often married with spicy and sweet curries, with lobster, fish or chicken. Muffin sized coconut tarts, empanada style ‘crusts’ stuffed with shredded coconut and creamy pies, are typical desserts made with coconut.
Coconut milk is used as a base for many Thai curries as the rich flavour cuts through the spices. No Thai meal is complete without the classic Thai soup with coconut milk, galangal and kaffir lime. Equally important is the green, red or yellow curry, abounding in coconut milk and served with steamed rice.
One can’t possibly relish a samosa or a papri chaat in its entirety, without the sweet and tangy tamarind or imli chutney. Chutneys apart, tamarind is abundantly used as a souring agent in Indian cuisine. Dals, sambhar, curries too get the tart and tangy flavour with a dash of soaked tamarind. Some chefs even use tamarind as a marinade, that besides adding flavour, helps to tenderise the meat.
Tamarind is a useful tropical fruit, used in cuisines across the world. The fruit pulp is used in drinks, snacks, sorbets and Worcestershire sauce. In Thai cooking, tamarind is a popular choice, as a base for many a tangy-sweet refreshing drink, apart from the Thai Nam Makham. It is also used in a variety of dishes including Pad Thai. Chef Hajarnavis even adds it to the traditional raw papaya salad, as a tamarind-sweet chilli dressing.
Globally, tamarind is used in a salad dressing. With a dash of lemon juice, brown sugar and olive oil, this can prove to be a great dressing. Chicken wings with tamarind mango glaze is another favourite. And of course no one goes through summer in Mexico, without sipping the refreshing cooler, Aguas Frescas.
Basil, a fragrant herb finds itself in every chef’s kitchen as it enhances a multitude of cuisines. The flavours range from mild and floral to spicy and complex are used across cuisines like the French, Italian, Mediterranean and Thai. In India, it is a sacred herb, sparingly used in cooking in dals, soups, pulaos and chutneys.
The aromatic Thai Basil, part of the mint family with the distinguishing flavours of licorice, anise and clove, is fairly commonplace. The herb is popular in South East Asian cuisines and is generally integrated in its fresh form or eaten raw when added to salads.
Chef Rahul Hajarnavis, Associate Culinary Director of Shiro, Mumbai, infuses the flavours of basil with a twist in a unique Thai dish called Vegetarian pot stickers. These dumplings with tofu and shiitake mushrooms, tossed with galangal, coriander root, green curry, coconut milk, then steamed and pan-seared, boast of the subtle flavours of Thai basil.
The slightly sweetish basil, is an integral part of Italian cuisine. Chef Roberto Zorzoli, Head Chef – Romano’s, JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar, feels basil is an interesting ingredient, fresh and flavourful. He explains, “Besides garnishing, basil is used to give aroma. It can be used in tomato sauce and pesto sauce for pastas and soups. It also makes a good marinade for seafood and meat to enhance the flavour to the dish. And of course few leaves in a salad, too compliment a caprese and burratta.”
Again, the bold and balanced flavours of Mediterranean cuisines are characterised by the basil. The understated, fresh aroma of basil with its intense, but light taste, is the perfect ingredient for a Tomato Dandelion Salad. Chefs feel, basil is best added at the end, when the leaves, sit for just a minute or two and infuse the food with its flavours.
No wonder, the French, call this multipurpose herb, basil herbe royal.
Wonder Spice Ginger
If masala chai with ginger is every Indian’s favourite, be known this spice is omnipresent in Indian kitchens. Ginger is added to almost every vegetable and meat dish in India, either on its own or with garlic. Add minced fresh ginger root to a soup, or ginger pieces to soups and experience a new flavour.
And for those who do not fancy the usual ginger in Indian preparations, be comforted that chefs play around with it in global dishes too. From lime and ginger marmalade to ginger biscuits, they know how to get the best out of ginger.
Pan Asian dishes especially Thai food, of course make use of the more pungent, whiter skin, root from the ginger family, galangal. This helps to mask the strong flavours of seafood. Ginger fried rice, curries with galangal, or maybe even a steamed chicken with lemongrass and ginger, are immensely popular.
Several seemingly local ingredients, owing to their adaptability thus, foray into global kitchens, to enhance the flavours of food.
Written by Mini Ribeiro