A World Of Flavors A Well-seasoned Cook Gets At The Root Of Ethnic Cuisines

Posted: April 03, 1988

Think of olive oil, garlic and basil. Your mouth may water for Italian pesto.

Think of olive oil, lemon and oregano, and a taste memory may call up avgolemono (Greek chicken soup) instead.

Soy sauce is easily recognized as a Far Eastern ingredient, but it takes an educated palate to distinguish the Chinese sauces of soy, rice wine and ginger

from the blends of soy, sake and sugar from Japan.

We all know, at least subconsciously, some of these regional and national differences in taste. But it took Elisabeth Rozin to distill years of travel and tasting into a series of flavor formulas that describe most of the world's cuisines. Her book, Ethnic Cuisine, The Flavor-Principle Cookbook (Stephen Greene Press, 1983), describes those tried-and-true seasoning combinations.

So it was that Rich Machlin and Jude Erwin - owners of Serrano at 20 S. Second St., a restaurant focusing on international, ethnic, home-style cooking - sought Rozin as their guest author for the city's the Book and the Cook festivities last month. After all, Machlin and Erwin have relied on Rozin's cookbook as a primer on ethnic cooking since the restaurant opened in 1985, and they were eager to work with her in person.

"We have some of her recipes adapted on our regular menu," said Machlin.

Imagine their surprise when they found that Rozin lives right in the area - in Havertown. That made it possible for Rozin to visit the restaurant several times before the Book and the Cook weekend to test and to taste. But the challenge was just how to present a multinational meal and convey Rozin's flavoring concepts most effectively.

"We wanted to have people be able to sample nine or 10 different ethnic cuisines at one meal," said Rozin, who frequently lectures on ethnic cuisines.

The solution: to provide a clear, side-by-side comparison of ethnic and regional seasoning differences. And so each of the first three courses of the dinner actually consisted of three variations.

The first course, for example, was a sampling of three variations on chicken soup. These were a matzo-ball soup rooted in Eastern Europe, sopa de lima from Mexico and a West African peanut soup. So when the soup course was served, each diner found himself with a plate containing three small cups of soup.

The same idea was carried out with an appetizer plate that presented three variations on eggplant dip. The dips were flavored, respectively, with a southern Indian blend of curry-mustard seed-chili, a central Asian taste of dill-feta and a Middle Eastern mix of garlic-tahini.

And along the same lines, a triple tasting of cucumber salad was prepared in the styles of India, Indonesia and Thailand.

Those introductory courses both educated and sated diners, making the choice of a single entree welcome. These ranged from a French cassoulet seasoned with wine and herbs to Malaysian-style pork chops with flavors of soy, brown sugar and chili.

Rozin wrapped up the dinner by creating a dessert - a course all but ignored in most cultures - that accented the common American after-dinner sweet with the piquancy of ginger and chili peppers. (Don't blanch. Diners who didn't even want to try it ended up asking for seconds.)

The informative dinner was staged three times - a preview for the restaurant's regular customers and two public performances for the Book and the Cook participants. The restaurant's name, by the way, refers to one of Erwin's favorite ingredients, the serrano chili, but only about one-third of the dishes on its varied menu use chili peppers.

"Actually, if you are dealing with ethnic cuisines, the chili pepper is a pretty good symbol," said Rozin. "Capsicum peppers are pretty common and seem to be similarly regarded in many cultures, as a basic food and a curative."

A frequent traveler and attentive diner, Rozin thought at first that her success in reproducing foreign dishes at home was just good luck. Then, kind of like one of those light-bulb phenomena, as she put it, she realized that it was all based on specific flavor principles.

Once you understand those principles, Rozin said, you can duplicate a dish or create your own in the same way any home cook in Singapore, Spain or Senegal might. Individual successes depend on the cook's taste and talent.

It may take time for new ideas to become a part of an existing cuisine. Who could now consider Italian food without tomatoes? Yet that ingredient was introduced from the Americas in the 16th-century and only gradually was accepted into Italian cuisine.

Or a flavor combination may retain its identity as a distinct cooking style, as happened with the Creole blending of French (butter, wine, thyme), Spanish (onions, peppers, garlic), African (okra) and native American (gumbo file) ingredients and cooking techniques.

This kind of cross-cultural cuisine tends to evolve at geographic ''crossroads," as happened in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines - and America, where many styles of cooking still cross paths.

For instance, says Rozin, "here tomato sauces are made with sugar, but no Italian would do that. Foreigners see America's flavor principle as a sweet tomato sauce - sweet spaghetti sauce, sweet barbecue sauce, ketchup. And that's not far from the truth. If there is a national American sauce, ketchup is it."


Here are the three versions of chicken soup served at the dinner. This first one, a matzo-ball soup, is based on the cooking style of Eastern European Jews and uses the characteristic onion and chicken fat.


6 to 8 cups chicken stock

1 onion or 1 leek, chopped

2 carrots, diced

2 stalks celery, with leaves, diced

1 parsnip, diced

1 small bunch dill, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)

A good handful parsley, chopped

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup cooked chicken, chopped or shredded

1 cup thin egg noodles or 1 recipe Matzo Balls (recipe below)

In a large pot, combine stock, onion, carrots, celery, parsnip, dill, parsley and pepper. Simmer, uncovered, over low heat for 30 minutes. Add chicken. If using noodles, add them and cook just until tender. If using matzo balls, make them in advance, and add them to soup at the last minute. Makes eight to 10 servings.


1/2 cup soup stock, from above

1/4 cup melted chicken fat

4 eggs, well-beaten

1 cup matzo meal

Dash freshly ground black pepper

Add stock and chicken fat to beaten eggs, and mix well. Add matzo meal and pepper, mix well, and let stand 30 minutes. Mixture will thicken considerably.

Have ready a large pot of boiling salted water. Pinch off a small amount of matzo mixture (about the size of a small walnut) and roll lightly in the palms to form a ball. As you roll them, drop balls into rapidly boiling water and let cook for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from water with slotted spoon and add to chicken soup or set aside until ready to add to soup. Makes 20 to 24 matzo balls.

In Mexico, Grandma's chicken soup is more like this combination using lime and chili seasonings.


6 cups chicken stock

Juice 1 large lemon

2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped, or 1/4 cup parsley, chopped

Pinch crushed dried red peppers

1 can (4 ounces) mild green chilies, minced

6 corn tortillas, cut into thin strips

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1 cup cooked chicken, cut into thin strips

1/2 cup cooked pork, cut into thin strips (optional)

3 scallions, chopped

1/2 unpeeled lime, finely chopped

In a large pot, heat chicken stock and add to it lemon juice, cilantro, red peppers and chilies. Simmer, uncovered, over low heat for 15 minutes.

Before serving, fry tortilla strips in hot vegetable oil until lightly browned and crisp. Drain on paper towels. Add tortilla strips, chicken, pork, scallions, and lime to soup, and heat through. Makes eight servings.

Machlin describes this West African interpretation of chicken soup as a ''four-day soup." When first made, he notes, it is rather thin, but after a few days the body "fills out."


2 medium onions, chopped

2 large red or green peppers, chopped

3 to 4 cloves garlic, mashed

2 tablespoons oil

1 can (28 ounces) tomatoes, coarsely chopped

8 cups chicken stock

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon crushed hot red peppers

1/2 cup rice

1 to 1 1/2 cups cooked chicken, chopped

2/3 cup peanut butter

In a large pot, saute onions, peppers and garlic in oil over moderate to high heat until onions just begin to brown. Add tomatoes, chicken stock, black pepper and hot peppers and simmer, uncovered, over low heat for about one hour. Add rice and chicken, and simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes or until rice is tender. Add peanut butter, and mix or whisk until it is completely dissolved and smooth. Heat to a simmer and serve. Makes eight to 10 servings.

Flavor principles carry through many dishes within an area. Ceviche is another example of the use of lime and chilies in Mexican cooking. It also overlaps the Mexican dishes using tomato and chili as seasoning.


1 pound boneless white fish filets, cut into thin strips, or 1 pound bay scallops

Juice of 3 lemons

Juice of 3 limes

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large ripe tomato, chopped

2 to 3 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped

1 small onion or 3 scallions, chopped

1 small fresh red chili pepper, seeded and finely chopped, or 2 tablespoons chopped canned serrano chilies

1 teaspoon salt

10 pitted green olives, halved

Combine fish or scallops with lemon and lime juices in a glass or ceramic bowl. Mix well. Be sure fish is entirely covered with juice. Cover and refrigerate for six to eight hours, or overnight. Before serving, drain off most of juice. Add oil, tomato, cilantro, onion, chili pepper, salt, pepper and olives. Mix well. Serve in small custard cups or dessert dishes. Makes four to six appetizer servings.

Chili is the result of a relatively recent crossing of cultures. Here it is varied in the West African style.


1 large onion, chopped

1 1/2 to 2 pounds lean ground beef

2 large red or green peppers, coarsely chopped

2 cups tomato sauce

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce, or to taste

2 cups fresh, frozen, or canned corn kernels

1/2 cup smooth peanut butter

In a large frying pan, saute onion in oil over moderate to high heat until onion begins to brown. Add ground beef, and brown over high heat.

When meat is completely browned, carefully pour off and discard all liquid

from pan. Add peppers, tomato sauce, salt, pepper and hot pepper sauce, and mix well. Cook over low to moderate heat about 30 minutes until slightly thickened. Add corn, mix well, and cook for an additional 10 minutes.

Add peanut butter, blend in well, and heat just until bubbly. Taste for

salt. Serve over plain rice or as a stuffing for green peppers, onions or large zucchini shells. Makes six to eight servings.

The soy, brown sugar and peanut flavors of Indonesia meet a cumin-ginger- garlic-turmeric curry blend from northern India in this "crossroads" dish.


3 tablespoons dark soy sauce

1 teaspoon dark brown sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons peanut butter

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

3 tablespoons peanut oil

2 large cloves garlic, mashed

1 tablespoon ginger root, minced

1 medium onion, chopped

1/4 teaspoon crushed dried red peppers

8 to 10 cups mixed vegetables (chopped cabbage, chopped or shredded spinach, sliced red or green peppers, sliced fresh mushrooms, fresh bean

sprouts, chopped scallions, etc.)

3 eggs, lightly beaten

In a small bowl, combine soy sauce, sugar, peanut butter, cumin, turmeric and coriander, and mix to form a smooth paste. Set aside. In a large frying pan or wok, heat oil over high heat. Add garlic, ginger root, onion and crushed red pepper, and stir-fry until mixture starts to smell good. Add the seasoning paste, and stir-fry a few minutes longer.

Add vegetables, tougher ones such as cabbage first, tender ones such as mushrooms and bean sprouts later, and stir-fry until tender but still crisp. Add beaten egg, and stir-fry until dry. Serve immediately with plain rice, if desired. Makes six servings.

"What we wanted to do for dessert," said Rozin, "was to sum it up, to have something that would have universal appeal, like ice cream, and add a sauce that in terms of hot or piquant would play against the sweet, cold ice cream." The result is a Chili-Ginger Sauce, which can be spiced up or down to taste.


2 cups sugar

2 cups water

3 tablespoons pickled ginger, finely chopped

1/4 cup dried apricots, chopped

Dash hot red pepper to taste

1/4 cup raisins

1/4 cup slivered almonds

1/4 cup chopped walnuts

Splash grenadine

Combine sugar and water in saucepan. Simmer 15 minutes to make simple syrup. Add ginger, apricots, red pepper, raisins, almonds, walnuts and grenadine, and simmer 5 minutes. Serve over vanilla ice cream, egg custard or as desired. Makes 2 1/2 cups.

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