For many, cuisines like Indian, Thai and Vietnamese are often thought of as restaurant meals, rather than home cooking ventures. But with the right ingredients and know-how, cooking with exotic spices at home can be a way to not only delve into a variety of international cuisines, but also amp up the flavour in your favourite family recipes.
Shef’s Fiery Kitchen
The name of her business might suggest otherwise, but Chef Shefali Somani knows a thing or two about incorporating spices into her food without necessitating blow-your-mouth-off spicy heat. Even in dishes as simple as rice, it’s easy to perk up the flavour by throwing in some whole spices and allowing them to infuse.
“Try adding cinnamon, cardamom, cumin seeds or grated ginger to basmati or jasmine rice to bring some exotic flavours to the table,” Chef Somani suggests.
Nigella seeds are also an ingredient that you may not be familiar with, but can add flavour to sautéed vegetables, lentil dishes, salads and poultry.
“Nigella tastes like a combination of onion, oregano and black peppercorns,” describes Somani. “It’s also a wonderful spice to bake into savoury breads.”
See here for Chef Somani’s recipe for Thai Green Curry with Chicken
Prairie Noodle Shop
Chef Eric Hanson of Prairie Noodle Shop in Edmonton suggests creatively combining Mexican and Thai flavours.
“There are a lot of crossovers between the two cuisines and notes that carry over from one to the other,” Chef Hanson says.
Take chilies, for example. Dried or fresh, Mexican and Thai chilies can be substituted for each other in various recipes to add different levels of complexity. Whereas dried Mexican chilies are often sweet and smoky with notes of raisin and an almost Fig Newton-like characteristic, Thai chilies typically have more of a “make you sweat through your clothing” heat.
As Chef Hanson puts it, “people don’t always want to have to change their shirts after eating.”
When brainstorming your own flavour pairings, just remember to hit all five essential Thai flavours: sweet, spicy, salty, sour and bitter. Regardless of what ingredients you use, as long as you cover all of your bases, you can create a complex, but balanced, recipe.
See here for Chef Hanson’s Special Secret Fish Sauce recipe
Pure Contemporary Vietnamese Kitchen & Bar
Toasting your spices is an essential step to ensure you maximize their flavour potential.
“When using spices like star anise, cloves, cinnamon or cardamom, it’s important to toast them first to fully extract the aroma each has to offer,” says Lam Pham, chef and owner of Pure Contemporary Vietnamese Kitchen & Bar in Calgary.
If you’re working with bold, hearty proteins, especially in making braises or stews, star anise and caramelized onion is Chef Pham’s go-to combination to accentuate the richness of the meat you are cooking.
“It’s the perfect meat booster!” he says. But more isn’t always better, especially when it comes to toasting spices.
“Remember, spices are much more intense when toasted, so a little goes a long way. You can always add more if you feel like you need it,” Pham advises.
See here for Chef Lam Pham’s recipe for Pot au Pho