Situation: Phone call with a work colleague, let’s call her Joyce.
Joyce: Cynthia, I went to a cooking class last evening and the Chef-instructor told us that seasoning is only salt and pepper. He said to season something is to add salt and pepper, anything else that you add is flavouring. I’ve never heard of this before. Is he right? He can’t be right!
Me: (Laughs out loud) Yes, he is right…
Joyce: What? When we season food is more than salt and pepper! You must add in herbs and spices and so on, that is seasoning the food!
Me: (Still laughing) Well, technically, in culinary terms (and remember he is a trained chef), to season does mean to only apply salt and black pepper to the ingredient or food. However, in Caribbean parlance, when we say season or seasoning the food, we mean what you say – salt and pepper PLUS herbs, spices, onions, garlic, and flavour liquids.
Joyce: That is what I know. Can you imagine us only seasoning our food with salt and pepper? It would be so bland!
I tried my best to explain to Joyce that the food would not necessarily be as bland as she thinks, but, you know, it is important to know when to leave certain things alone until you can find another way to better get your point across. In my case it is going to be cooking something and seasoning with only salt and pepper and letting Joyce taste the food.
Actually, for over a year now, I have taken to only seasoning most of my sautéed vegetables with salt and pepper (freshly ground black pepper). I would throw in a few mai wiri pepper to eat on the side, but the seasoning is simply salt and black pepper. Before, I would always cut up onions, garlic, thyme and maybe celery or tomatoes depending on what I was cooking and sauté them before adding the vegetables to cook. Of course, the added aromatics enhance the dish, but they also mask some of the natural flavour of the vegetables. Fry okra with only salt and pepper and taste the inherent sweetness of the okra. Or cook callaloo with only salt and pepper and taste the flavour of that specific variety of spinach, or bora, for that green beany flavour. Seasoning with salt and pepper is an excellent way to appreciate and learn the taste of many ingredients and dishes.
I have friends who’ve told me that they do not know the difference in the taste of meats. For example, they cannot tell if they are having lamb, beef or pork except if they are told that is what they are eating. In other words, they do not know how those meats taste, they just know that they like them cooked a particular way with certain marinades, herb pastes or spice blends. Well, it’s because our style of cooking and seasoning is more than salt and pepper, and that is a good thing! Flavouring provides pleasurable ways for us to enjoy the things we cook and eat. But we should also be able to differentiate the taste between meats, if not, then what is the point of having different meats? The flavoured seasoning should be to enhance and complement not smother or mask. A lot of times though (long before seasoning) we can blame the incessant use of lime and salt on meats for such long periods that the acid cooks the meat and the salt draws out the natural moisture of the meat removing its flavour. My people, we are in the 21st century. We have refrigeration. Get yourself a good quality piece of meat and liberally season it with only salt and pepper; grill it, roast it, fry it, pan-sear and taste the difference.
One day, out of sheer laziness, I seasoned a chicken to roast with only salt and pepper and let it marinate overnight. The next day, I patted it dry and put it in the oven to cook, it turned out to be one of the best tasting roast chickens I had ever made. Actually, as I ate it, it had me thinking of that elusive flavour of Chinese-style roast chicken that we love so much. That chicken tasted like chicken.
As an older teenager, whenever I cooked dhal, I always used to sauté the split peas with a little green seasoning before adding the water to cook the peas. One day my mother saw what I was doing and said to me (in the best way she could without hurting my feelings) – “I want to taste the flavour of the peas in my dhal, so next time, don’t put in any green seasoning.” And from that day on, I have never cooked dhal with green seasoning and you know what, mommy was right, the dhal did taste better, there was no herby taste competing with the tadka – garlic and geera infused oil. I’ve adopted that “taste the flavour of the peas” mantra to my cooking of Bajan Rice and Peas and Guyanese Cook-up Rice; onions and fresh thyme set the foundation for both dishes.
Taste has, and will always be, subjective. However, we must not lose our ability to taste. These days too many things are being made, bought, and sold that are void of taste; they are breaded, battered, coated, covered, dipped, doused, injected, powdered and smothered in so much stuff that they bear no resemblance in look or taste to what they are meant to be.
Here’s my advice – season your food with salt and pepper, cook it and get to know its flavour. Figure out what you like and dislike. After a few times, try adding herbs, spices, aromatics, or liquid seasonings (soy sauce, fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce etc) to suit your taste. Experiment and come up with flavourings that complement the seasoning of your food.