A couple articles back, we tried to get into the actual art of cooking, to look at the finer points you should be aware of to assist you in preparing those wonderful meals, but the culinary landscape in Barbados has become so dynamic that every week something comes up that requires mention.
We finally have the opportunity to continue to look at food itself and if you remember in our first article in this mode entitled The wonderful world of flavouring and seasoning, we started to talk about recognizing and identifying flavours and how we can blend and manipulate different ones. We were to follow on with herbs and spices, so here it goes.
What are herbs and spices? Are they important in cooking and if so, why? So let’s start by asking the question, are herbs and spices the same thing, or are they different? What differentiates an herb from a spice? When I ask my students these questions, I usually receive a wide range of answers but, strangely enough, the most common is that one is dried and one is fresh; one is powdered and one is in its whole form (e.g leaves); one is hot or spicy and the other is mild in flavor.
None of these answers determines whether it is an herb or spice, because herbs or spices can be obtained in either fresh or dried (preserved), or powdered or whole form. What in fact determines the difference between an herb and a spice is mainly the flavour profile and that profile is influenced by the part of the plant from which it comes. Therein lies the definition.
Herbs are that portion derived from the leaf, stalk or flower of the plant, while spices are the portion obtained from the bark, seed or root. So straight away you start to think of the flavours and you immediately determine that herbs would have that fresh, floral flavour through the leaves and stalk of the plant and the spices would have that earthy flavor and aroma. They bring totally different flavour profiles to your meal.
Now we come to the important part. If you remember, we said flavour is the natural taste of an item which makes it identifiable. Everything we use in cooking has a flavour. However, being chefs and understanding that people tend to get bored very quickly and require frequent changes in flavour to keep them excited, it falls on us cooks and chefs to constantly manipulate that natural flavour to keep them interested. In come herbs and spices, as the use of these two commodities can mingle completely with any basic flavour to which they are blended; in our field, that is referred to as flavour manipulation. This is a very skillful job and takes years of practice before you can learn to balance these flavours correctly.
There is, by the way, a word which you will hear over and over in your cooking classes as it is one of the most important words in cooking, i.e. balance. To achieve this balance, it starts in the brain where we once again go to our flavour folder which stores the flavours of all of these herbs and spices for ease of reference when the time arises. This, though, opens a can of worms for us as the array of flavours is so vast and the combinations so extensive, that one can easily be led to the other side, which is the abuse of flavours and you see this quite a bit as you move from one food establishment to the next.
Care must be taken in the use of these flavouring items as well because, as you might know, some of them can also be medicinal and the overuse of these herbs and spices, given their potency, can possibly lead to serious gastric discomfort. At the risk of being banished or at the least stoned by someone for touching this topic, let me further explain by focusing on our celebrated night offering, which is Baxter’s Road or the new Baxter’s Road, namely Oistins, or as a matter of fact, what seems these days like any street corner on a Friday or Saturday night –– our “street food”.
This, I appreciate, is a large part of our culinary culture and has its historic origins. However, in recent times, I have found that since anyone can don an apron, chequered pants and chef jacket, get a barrel and throw some old wood on the inside, set it alight and cook some protein over it that was sometimes criminally sacrificed with these herbs and spices, this clearly shows that some people have not a clue about the use of these commodities.
I clearly remember my younger days when I spent countless hours with my friends liming in Baxter’s Road, thoroughly enjoying the fish fry offering and engaging in some heated arguments as to which of the numerous vendors had the best tasting fish, chicken or pork. Little did I know at that time, it had nothing to do with the flavour of the meat, but all to do with the combination of herbs and spices that the vendor used to prepare what is known as their Bajan seasoning. So without knowing it, what we were really judging was which vendor prepared the best tasting combination of herbs in our opinion, because by the time we got the protein we had ordered, it was so dominated by these flavours, that any taste of that protein would have long dissipated, to the point where that vendor would sometimes ask “. . .which fish you want, dolphin, marlin or king fish? . . .” and then proceed to put anything in the oil.
By the time it reached you, it was pretty much unrecognizable by flavour and yes, although all fish, they each have distinct flavours. So there lies the question, why was it still so enjoyable for us? And the answer to this is found deep in our culinary history. Where did we start over-flavouring and over-seasoning our food? If you think back, you will remember in the early days that there was no refrigeration, so the method of storing food would have been curing or brining, which was done with the use of strong herbs and spices.
However, by the time the preserved product was to be used, the natural flavour would have been dominated by the herbs, spices and natural preservatives such as salt, sugar and oil which were used during the process. That flavour became natural to us and stuck, growing as part of our culture in flavours. To this day, we are still governed by the quest to reproduce such flavours. There the protein would have become merely the canvas on which the artistry of flavours would have been painted.
I promise to talk to you some more about flavours as we go on because it is such an important part of our culinary experience. If you find it interesting and really want in-depth knowledge of flavouring or any other aspect related to food, contact Caribbean Cuisine Culinary Institute at Tel: 629-0075/76 to enroll in one of our cooking classes or to have a personalized consultancy.
(Peter Edey is a Certified Executive Chef with the American Culinary Federation, a graduate of l’École Ritz Escoffier, Paris and a Certified Caribbean Hospitality Trainer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)