Have you ever wondered why some cuisines feature spices more prominently than others?
I think of this question whenever I’m eating at the home of my mother-in-law, who was born and raised in the former Soviet Union. Dinner at her house nearly always includes traditional family favorites such as pelmeni (a type of stuffed pasta similar to ravioli), salads made with various root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, and beets, for example) in a mayo or sour cream-based dressing, chicken cutlets (patties of ground chicken bound with egg and fried in oil) and smoked and preserved fish, all seasoned primarily with salt, some pepper, and occasionally a few herbs such as dill and parsley. But spices such as paprika, nutmeg, vanilla, cardamom, and cumin? Never heard of ‘em!
In contrast, other cuisines that I love are practically defined by their reliance on specific, often indigenous spices. True Mexican food (not Tex-Mex) is spiked with chiles, both fresh and dried, as well as cinnamon. Thai cuisine is redolent with lemongrass, galangal (a root related to ginger), and Thai bird chiles. Star anise, ginger, and Sichuan peppercorns shine in the regional cuisine of China’s Sichuan province.