If you have a distinct memory of the smell of your mom’s kitchen, the scents and fond recollections that make up the background of your childhood are likely due to her use of aromatics. Whether your grandmother started off her meal by chopping up some garlic and ginger and heating it up in ghee or your father was sure to begin his signature dish with onions and bell papers in olive oil, they were sticking to the age-old cooking staple: The aroma and appearance of food is just as important as its taste.
“Smells are the first thing you come into contact before you’ve even seen the food,” says Shahana Khan, a registered and licensed dietitian. “It makes it more desirable.”
The whiffs coming off food also signal the brain to start the digestion process, making us salivate.
Aromatics give meals the sight and scent that make them appealing. They’re created by combining finely diced vegetables and herbs and heating them in some form of fat at the culmination of a dish. They’re the first step in most soups, stews, and sauces. They are also the key for cooks to understand how to make fare without recipes, as mastering them and then building on the flavors can lead to experimentation and a larger grasp of cuisine. Most cooks innately use the process without even knowing it has a name or its importance in creating local flavors. Those same combinations are often passed down along generations.
“Aromatics are used all over the world,” explains Christine Janae-Leoniak, founder of Culture Aromatics. “Different cultures use different blends of vegetables, herbs, spice, and even sometimes meats to build their own special regional flavor base.”
For example, in French cooking, the most common combination is a mirepoix, two parts onion and one part carrot and celery diced very finely. This, cooked in butter, will start off many soups, broths, and other bases for classic dishes. Anyone who has made chicken noodle soup when ill will recognize the mix.
In most cultures, something from the onion family is the traditional start, and then other greens, herbs, and spices are added in. A Spanish sofrito, for example, will have garlic, onions, green bell peppers, and tomatoes cooked in olive oil, with variations including cilantro, cumin, paprika, or all three added in. Italians have their own soffritto with onions, carrots, and celery. Thai curry bases will start off with shallots, garlic, and chilies cooked in oil and coconut milk. Cajun cooking swears by onion, celery, and peppers, and Germans have their suppengruen with leeks, carrots, and celery.
There’s an array of other additions that vary dish by dish, such as lemongrass, chives, star anise, parsley, thyme, coriander, turmeric, and bay leaves.
Those flavors become distinct by region and instantly recognizable, Khan expands. “You can tell, oh, this is Mexican food just because of the seasoning. I’m Indian, so we use the onions, garlic, chili peppers. You can tell something is Chinese because they add a lot of ginger to their foods,” she says.
However, because so many bases from different countries can overlap or complement one another, it gives way to fusion cuisine, which starts at the roots of the dishes in aromatics. French herbs de Provence include thyme, but the short-leafed stalks are also essential in Middle Eastern cuisine. Southeast Asian and Latin American cooking both rely on cumin.
“Even though cultures do this all over the world, you can get creative and do your own,” Janae-Leoniak says. This takes some practice and understanding the properties and flavors of what you’re cooking. For example, adding more carrots to a mirepoix, she explains, will make the mix sweeter, which may work in some instances. Garlic can always be overdone, and a heavy hand with spices may overpower a dish. “I think there’s an art and a skill that comes from balancing these flavors,” Janea-Leoniak says.
In general, foods, especially vegetables, change their chemistry when cooked in different ways. You sauté onions long enough, they’ll first get a little sweet and then eventually caramelize. Roasted garlic loses its pungent flavor, but raw garlic pureed with potatoes is preferred in dishes such as the Arab muthawama.
Produce may lose some of its nutritional value when cooked, but using aromatics is an easy way to get it into diets, especially as it’s diced so finely. “They almost dissolve into the food, and so kids will often enjoy the flavor but not the texture or the visual of the food,” Janae-Loniak expands. “In the future, when they have a more developed palate, the idea behind the flavors will be there, building this amazing ability for kids to understand they do love these vegetables.”
Herbs and spices also have a range of nutritional value, with vitamins and minerals, such as zinc, iron, and magnesium. Garlic and onions have antioxidants, and ginger helps prevents colds and the flu. Spices have been shown to lower inflammation, help with digestion, boost metabolism, and aid with cholesterol.
Janae-Loniak suspects the natural inclination to blend these vegetables, spices, and herbs stemmed from a notion that they would lead to better health. Khan believes that scientists will unlock myriad benefits to spices that cooks had innately just been adding to cuisine.
Plus, for those who are trying to control their intake of salt, beginning meal preparation with aromatics can increase flavor without relying on sodium as the only enhancer.
“When I talk to hypertensive patients or diabetic patients, I tell them instead of using fat, sugar, and salt, you need to use these kinds of herbs and spices,” Khan elaborates. “Using these fresh herbs and vegetables and sautéing them in a little bit of oil or butter is fine if that helps you reduce your salt and sugar intake overall.”
Of course, like anything else, it can be possible to overdo it on aromatics, but our taste buds are set up to let us know when we’ve had enough of a good thing. Sage, for example, can add great flavor, but it is extremely strong in bulk. Experimenting with different combinations lets us curate our palates.
“I think it’s possible to overdo in some areas, but I believe in exploration when it comes to food,” Janae-Leoniak says.
Food will still taste good without the associated smell that aromatics bring, but they really act as a base to build on. “The idea is that you can use them not just for developing the overall structure of the dish, but it creates this whole personality to the food,” Janae-Leoniak adds. “They add a layer to the food that is strong and filled with character for your dish.”
Nadia Malik holds a degree in journalism and is a former reporter for a Chicago-area newspaper. She has written for websites and publications and has also worked for several non-profit organizations. She is currently in a graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania, studying social work and nonprofit leadership.