Aromatics often are the first ingredients that hit a hot pan. We don’t really question their purpose or proportions too much, we just know to chop them up (plant, spice, or vegetable) and throw them into the hot oil with a sizzle and let them do their thing. The characteristic flavour of each ingredient mingles with the others, and eventually, together they form the subtle, yet mouth-watering backdrop of soups, stews, curries, rice dishes, pastas, or stir fry. Cuisines from around the world use different aromatic bases, with particular cutting and cooking methods, to give their dishes a unique taste.
Perhaps a familiar aromatic base is the French mirepoix—a combination of evenly diced onions, carrots and celery (two parts onion to one part carrot and one part celery). In France, the cooking fat used may be butter, pork fat or olive oil. In Europe and North America, the mirepoix is adjusted with the addition of regional ingredients and variation of the quantities. For example, in North America home cooks and chefs may start with mirepoix, and add garlic or scallion. In Italy, the aromatic base called soffritto, includes chopped onions, carrots and celery, with the addition of fennel or garlic and meat, either prosciutto or pancetta.
Soffritto is not to be confused with Spain’s and Latin American variations of sofrito that use bell pepper or sweet peppers (and other ingredients) in the mix. Portuguese cooking lays a flavour foundation called refogado; onions, garlic, tomato, sometimes peppers and/or pork.
With cuisines of the East, we might be less aware of particular names assigned to combinations of aromatic bases (like mirepoix), that also defines the way the ingredients should be chopped, and/or how they should be cooked (ex., sauté, sweat, dry-roast). But the aromatic base is no less present in the diverse cuisines this part of the world.
For example, in China, Cantonese cooking uses minced garlic, chopped ginger, onions and or scallions. In Thailand, curries often begin with shallots, garlic, and chiles and layered with other ingredients such as lemon grass, basil, and galangal. In Indian cuisine, a curry may contain coarsely chopped onion and garlic, hot chiles, and minced ginger. Hand-blended finely ground curry powders are also quickly roasted in the pan.
This brings me to Sri Lankan cuisine, and the aromatics commonly used in the curries, particularly the ones I am familiar with in Sinhalese cuisine. Sinhalese cooks use a method known as tempering. When I wrote Milk, Spice and Curry Leaves, one of the first questions I received from my editor was, “what is the meaning of tempering in this context?” Tempering in North American cooking has an entirely different meaning. In Sri Lanka, tempering is the term used to describe to a common cooking method that involves the quick shallow frying of aromatics—the oil is brought to a high temperature to bring about the instant browning and release the flavours of the ingredients. Tempering begins with finely chopped onions and ripped curry leaves. The distinct smell of tempered onions and curry leaves is what made my mouth water every time while growing up—the smell of good home cooking.
Other ingredients such as green chili (often called Thai or Indian chilies) and chopped tomatoes may be added shortly after to the mix. Ground, minced, finely chopped or thinly sliced garlic and ginger are also key aromatics to Sinhalese meat and seafood dishes, either marinated with the protein or added after the coconut milk is added. The addition of Sri Lankan roasted, or un-roasted curry powder—made up of whole seeds (cumin, fennel and coriander), leaves, and bark that have be been dry roasted and finely ground—adds another layer of earthy and spicy flavours.
The diverse range of aromatics in Sri Lankan cooking- onion, curry leaves, garlic, ginger, chili, tomato, spice blend, and sometimes additional ingredients (mustard seeds, lemon grass)—is a result of centuries long influences. This can be seen in the Portuguese, Dutch and British influences to Sri Lankan recipes and cooking methods from colonial periods (the Portuguese ruled in Sri Lanka for 150 years in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, followed by the Dutch for 138 years). Asian and Eastern influences from neighboring countries have left an obvious mark on Sri Lankan cuisine as well.
Sri Lankans will adjust the combination of aromatics to their family’s liking, and you’ll find most curry powder recipes vary from household to household (this is the way with generational recipes). Sri Lankans often practice the “feel free to adjust” approach to cooking, which I think can be applied to most world cuisines and regionally-inspired aromatic bases. So, feel free to adjust with your mirepoix or in your tempering! Just keep in mind, the purpose of aromatics, and the layering of essential ingredients, is to harmoniously blend flavours, so that the final dish is as simple as it is uniquely delicious.
Temper - Origin from the Portuguese “temperadu,” which means to fry and season.
All images on this page ©Natasha Asselstine