Flavour combinations are something we set out to talk about on this blog. And they can be amazing. But one doesn't often think about the reasons some of those flavour combinations came about and the purposes they serve. Some examples I've been thinking about recently come from the Indian and Thai cooking traditions.
The good ol' red chili can be delicious and add some fiery taste sensations to a meal. But chili also triggers acid production in the body, and this isn't always good. Isn't it interesting that, while Indian and Thai dishes can have plenty of chili, they often contain other ingredients that balance out those effects? Allow me to introduce lemongrass and tamarind (no, they're not cousins of Cinnamon and Truffle). Lemongrass is used liberally in Thai cooking, in almost everything from stir-fries to tom yum soups to green curries. And tamarind, used in South Indian fish curries and mulligatawny soups, is a staple of the Indian store cupboard. These two ingredients have an alkaline effect on the body, balancing out the chili's acid. So not only does the combination of chili and lemongrass/tamarind taste great, it also helps out your body!
Even if you're not having chili, eating certain foods (like some meat proteins) could stimulate excess acid production in the stomach and cause discomfort (e.g., gas and acid reflux). A traditional remedy in Singapore/Malaysia is to boil stalks of lemongrass in water (cut the stalks up for quicker brewing) and drink the resulting tea once cooled. If you don't have lemongrass to hand, grab a slice of lemon and put it in a mug of hot water. (It's strange but true: while lemons contain citric acid, the effect they have on your body, in the digestive process, is alkaline. If anyone out there's a Chemistry major, please feel free to enlighten us!)
And, finally, here's a little helpful tip just in case you're not sure what to do with tamarind packaged as shown in the picture. You can get tamarind like this in most Asian supermarkets. This is basically tamarind fruit plucked off a tree, prepared and packed. To use it, simply put the required amount of tamarind in some warm water, and allow it to stew for 5 minutes or so. Mash it up well in the water (with your hands if you like) and drain it. The bit you want to use is the drained liquid (with some of the tamarind pulp), which you can then add to your curry.
If you really have no idea what to do with tamarind, I promise we'll post some recipes to help you out!