月度归档一月 2019

Cinnamon in the Cupboard Real or Imposter

  I have a bone to pick about cinnamon. How many of you really know what spice you have in your cupboards. Are you sure it really is cinnamon.

We in the U.S. are having the wool pulled over our eyes about cinnamon. What we commonly know in the U.S. as cinnamon is actually Cassia (cinnamomum aromaticum). It is a relative of true cinnamon, but not the real thing. The rest of the world uses true cinnamon (cinnamomum verum), in their cooking or baking, yet here we are sold something completely different.

As background, I first found out how much difference there was between these two spices when I lived in Guatemala. The cinnamon there tasted very different from what I knew growing up in Ohio; making things like an apple pie or apple crisp just tasted different. They were very good, but didn’t taste like what had known. I chalked it up to differences in quality of product, or maybe my baking skill was inadequate. Any typical Guatemalan foods I ate or made with cinnamon tasted just fine of course, with nothing to compare.

That was back in the 1970s, and it wasn’t until much later, when once again living in the U.S., I tried making a Guatemalan dish, Platanos en Mole (Plantains in Mole Sauce), using the cassia available. The dish just tasted wrong. I couldn’t understand it. I had made this dish many times in Guatemala. I had a lot more cooking and baking skill by this time. What was wrong? I started checking into spices in general, with an eye to those things I knew were different, and discovered that we in the U.S. are being marketed a completely different product.

Cassia cinnamon is a very good spice, of course. I do not for a second propose we do away with it! What would our apple pies taste like without it. It is a wonderful spice, worthy of the space in our cupboards. However, I propose that true cinnamon have an equal place.

Cinnamon of either kind is the bark of the tree. The bark is peeled off and dried, curling into what are known as quills or ground into powder. This is where the similarity ends. Cassia quills are very thick curls, strong and sometimes even hard to break. It has a stronger taste, warmer and more potent. There is some very good quality cassia to be found these days, such as Korintje AA. A lovely spice to perk up anything you commonly make with cinnamon here.

For my cooking classes I always take both types of cinnamon: a high quality cassia quill and ground Korintje AA cassia, alongside true cinnamon quills and ground cinnamon. True cinnamon quills are curled and layered together in a tight roll, are very thin and easily crushed. The flavor is lighter and more delicate, with a somewhat lemony quality. I set the quills side by side and demonstrate the differences, first breaking a cassia quill, with the ensuing loud snap when it breaks. Then I show the cinnamon quill, layered together, and how very easily it breaks and crumbles. With the ground version of each side by side, I ask the class members to smell the two; first the cassia that is the most familiar, and then the cinnamon. The startled reactions when they realize exactly how big a difference exists between these two spices, is quite rewarding.

I would liken this before the U.S woke up and smelled really good Arabica coffee. Once we found out about good coffee, the tide turned. I believe this country is in the process of bringing true cinnamon into the light. It is found in most any Mexican grocery section these days. Good quality spice shops carry excellent quality cinnamon and also excellent quality cassia. If you want to make any ethnic food from anywhere else in the world, or just become familiar with a new flavor go for true cinnamon. It’s worth the effort.

Thank you for taking the time to read my article. I hope it was informative and helped you along your own culinary journey. You will find many more recipes and helpful tips on my web site. I am on Facebook at A Harmony of Flavors and share a recipe or tip each day to the fans that have liked my site. I hope to see you there soon.

The Staple Ingredients of Thai Cuisine

Thai cuisine is a combination of a variety of cooking styles from different regions of Thailand. It is typically famed for its powerful spicy flavours, but in actual fact Thai dishes should be the perfect balance of four fundamental tastes: hot, sour, salty and sweet.

There is a degree of complexity to Thai cookery which can often be mistaken as a jumble of flavours to the untrained chef. However, by using the correct quantities of each ingredient, a harmony of flavours can be achieved, so that each of the four tastes can be distinguished and compliment each other perfectly.

Thai dishes tend to include a wide variety of herbs and spices that are now readily available in your local oriental supermarket and some can even be found in western supermarkets. Kaffir lime leaves, known as ma gruud, bring a sour, but aromatic flavour to Thai cuisine, and are usually bruised and added whole to many Thai soups. They are famously used in Thailand’s most popular soup dish; Tom Yum Goong.

Much like bay leaves, kaffir lime leaves are not consumed but used to provide an aromatic afternote. They are often blended with various other herbs, roots and spices and used to add fragrance to Thai curry paste. They can be purchased fresh or in frozen and dried forms.

Lemongrass (ta krai) also provides a sour element to Thai cuisine. They are often purchased fresh, but can also be frozen for convenience. Lemongrass is used to inject a sour fragrance into a wide variety of Thai cuisine, including Thai curry pastes. 

The Bird’s eye chili (prik kee noo) is another ingredient that is widely used in Asian cooking. Indigenous to Central and South America, the bird’s eye chili made its way to South East Asia via the Spanish and Portuguese colonists and traders. It is characterised by its fiery heat and is often consumed raw in dishes such as khao kha mu (stewed pork trotter served with rice).

Roots such as garlic (krathiam) and ginger (king) provide a deep base flavour for many Thai dishes, although traditionally Thai chefs prefer to use a more citrusy root called galangal (kha). The galangal root is a staple ingredient for many Thai curries and soups and because of its deep flavour it blends well into spicy dishes.

Dried herbs are often used to provide a ‘spice’ element to Thai cooking. Ground white pepper (prig thai bhon) was traditionally used as the prime provider of heat before the ‘Fresh Chili’ was brought to Thailand, but it continues to be used in a wide variety of dishes.

Ground chillies, (prig kee nu bonn) are simply a dried version of the bird’s eye chili. The drying process allows it to be stored for longer and often delivers a serious heat to food.

Typically cumin (ye raa) is used to provide a bitter element to Thai cuisine. This is often sold in seed form, but can also be sold as a ground powder. 

Fish sauce (nam pla) is commonly used in many Thai dishes and is made from fermented fish. It provides salty and pungent flavour and is typically used as a seasoning. It can be added to food during the cooking process, but can also be enjoyed as a raw seasoning that can be added to prepared dishes.

Shrimp paste (kapi) is another staple in Thai food and is made by fermenting ground shrimp and salt. Much like fish sauce it has a pungent aroma but is used only as an ingredient in cooking and cannot be consumed raw. Shrimp paste provides a powerful flavour which exudes bitterness and saltiness and is used in the famous chilli paste called nam phrik kapi.

Thai curry paste (khrueang kaeng) which translates to “curry ingredients”, can be made fresh or bought in most supermarkets. Most khrueang kaeng will be a ground mixture of fresh or dried spices, chillies and various herbs and other ingredients such as shrimp paste.

To provide sweetness to food two ingredients are primarily used; Palm sugar (nam taan peep) and coconut milk (maphrao).

Palm sugar is a solid formed sweetener made from Palm Sap. Rich and sweet in flavour it has a more subtle sweetness than ‘cane sugar’, and is more suitable for cooking with spiced dishes. It is often used to sweeten Thai desserts, but is also regularly used in savoury Thai dishes.

Coconut milk is creamy and sweet and is especially popular in dishes that originate in Southern Thailand. Most famously used in Thai curry, coconut milk is added after spices and herbs to provide a deep creamy flavour and helps to blend the intricate aromas together.