The Trinities

The Trinities

Most of us eat at a global table. Whether it's due to our own origins, travel, having friends and families with diverse backgrounds, or eating at our big city ethnic restaurants, we crave flavors from around the world. Many of us even have enough of an international palate that blindfolded, we could name a dish's country of origin after only one or two bites.

There's a reason why it's so easy. It's because of the trinities.

Nearly every national cuisine has, at its foundation, a trio of ingredients that when cooked together forms a flavor base. These are usually aromatics, herbs, or spices, combined in either equal amounts or sometimes in a ratio of 1:2:3. They're cooked together at the start of a dish, usually in a slow sauté in butter or oil, so that the flavors release and blend to become a distinctive and complex basis for stews, braises, sauces, soups and stir fries.

The best known trio may be the French mirepoix of onion, carrots and celery, or perhaps the Spanish sofrito of garlic, onion and tomato. But trinities are not exclusive to western European countries. On the contrary -- they're common around the world and it's the reason why with one bite you can know a dish's origins -- and maybe also be reminded why a certain cuisine is a favorite.

Since regional cooking in any country has many variations, trinities are not hard and fast rules. But I think it's fascinating that cooking from a consistent foundation of flavors is practiced globally. For any home cook who regularly makes an internationally eclectic mash-up of recipes, it's compelling to see how certain ingredients are a cuisine's hallmark.

The point of knowing the culinary trinities is not to reduce a cuisine to an ingredient cliché but instead to be able to recognize where many of our most-loved defining flavors have originated. I suspect that for some of you, reading this list may give you a few "ah-ha" moments as you realize how certain ingredients connect the ethnic foods you love the most. It may also serve as a guideline for stocking your pantry: if you love to make Thai or Greek or Jamaican food, you'll know which ingredients to keep.

With this in mind, here are some of the most commonly known and cooked trinities:


Here are examples of how a trinity is used to establish flavor. First, adapted from Marcella Hazan's first book, The Classic Italian Cookbook, her extraordinary version of ossobuco.  See our link to the recipe.  And from Ellie Krieger, an easy way to give lamb chops flavor with a quick marinade using the Greek trio of garlic, lemon and oregano before broiling. For the recipe from The Food Network, see our link.

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