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:
- Brazil: The regional foods of Bahia are flavored with dende oil, coconut milk and malagueta pepper.
- Cajun/Creole: Called the "holy trinity" -- chopped onion, bell pepper, and celery. Used in classic Louisiana dishes including étouffée, gumbo and jambalaya.
- Chinese: Although China's regional cuisines will vary, many Chinese dishes begin with a base of scallions, ginger and garlic. Others use a trinity of garlic, ginger and chili peppers, and in spicy Sichuan cuisine, there is the trio known as "three peppers" -- chili, Sichuan, and white pepper.
- Cuba: A sofrito of garlic, bell pepper and Spanish onion.
- French: Mirepoix -- chopped onions, carrots and celery, sautéed in butter and according to Julia Child, "used in sauces, with braised vegetables or with chicken breasts poached in butter, it imparts that real 'je ne sais quoi….'" Mirepoix should not be confused with bouquet garni, which is a cheesecloth sack of herbs like parsley and thyme, plus spices, used to flavor stocks and braises.
- Greece: The national flavor of Greece usually comes from a base of lemon juice, olive oil and oregano.
- Hungary: Many national Hungarian dishes are cooked on a foundation of paprika, lard and onion.
- India: Many Indian regional cuisines are cooked on a base of garlic, ginger and onion.
- Italian: Soffritto -- this trio is associated with northern Italian cuisine, made up of carrots, onions and celery, identical to the French mirepoix, although some will argue that instead of celery the third element is fennel. Southern Italian food is also associated with the flavor trio of garlic, tomato and basil.
- Jamaica: Jamaican cuisine has a distinctive flavor marked by its own holy trinity of garlic, scallion and thyme.
- Japan: Instead of ingredients sautéed together, this great cuisine is defined more by flavors from sauces -- dashi, mirin and soy sauce, often in precise ratios.
- Korea: In this cuisine the three key ingredients are garlic, ginseng and kimchi, although not necessarily in combination.
- Lebanon: Similar to Greek cuisine, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil are the cornerstone of many Lebanese traditional dishes.
- Mexico: With flavors firmly defined by heat, many Mexican traditional recipes include a trinity of chili peppers -- ancho, pasilla and guajillo.
- Portuguese: Refogado -- a quad of onions, garlic, peppers and tomatoes.
- Spanish: Sofrito -- garlic, onion and tomato. Essential when making paella.
- Thailand: Many Thai traditional dishes, including curries, are flavored with galangal (a kind of ginger), kaffir lime and lemon grass.
- West Africa: The basis of most west African cuisines is a trio of chili peppers, onions and tomatoes.
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.