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How to get pungent flavor in spicy dishes

Long time lurker. Finally got the urge to join. I am on a quest to source a flavor which appears in spicy dishes. Mexican, Indian, chili, etc. I can't seem to recreate it. Without being negative, it is very much a flavor similar to body odor. Very bad body odor at that. I am lead to believe it is created by cumin. My cumin is ground and could be stale. Could it be that simple? Would fresh ground cumin from seed be more "pungent"? Or something else altogether? Any thoughts appreciated! Thanks in advance.

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    1. Could be cumin or dried coriander. If you're not doing so
      already, saute the spices in a little oil or butter at the start
      rather than adding them later. Depending on the recipe,
      doing the same with a little tomato paste can also add some
      depth of flavor.

        1. My guess is that either cumin or turmeric.

          1. Yep, has to be cumin. "Body odor" is precisely how I would have described it when I first started learning my spices, but it is absolutely one of my favorites. In Mexican food, the slightly petroleum-ish flavor of Mexican oregano seems to ramp up the pungency for me, and in both Mexican and Indian food so do toasted dried chiles, onions, garlic. Try toasting cumin seeds in a dry frying pan, then grinding them.

            1. Thanks for replies! Gonna try and get some cumin seed, toast and grind first. Then I will try some of the other suggestions.

              1 Reply
              1. re: zwiller

                I think you'll even see better results if you use cumin purchased at a spice shop... it'll be fresher and you can buy just the amount you need. And, it's not as much work as toasting/grinding your own.

              2. Could be cumin, but I've heard complaints that fenugreek has this quality. Doesn't to me, but then, I've never understood the "cilantro tastes like soap" thing, either.

                4 Replies
                1. re: pine time

                  Fenugreek has the same qualities, but if it's an ingredient in Indian, Mexican or chili, the most likely culprit is chili.

                  1. re: JungMann

                    Cumin is the the most likely culprit Chilies do not have the aroma the OP is describing.

                    1. re: chefj

                      D'oh! I meant to say cumin. I think I corrected myself below.

                2. Chili was the last thing I tried and it did improve things a bit, especially using ancho powder. I am starting to think it might be the combo of things. That said, I've tried a ton of variations of the usual suspects and get something good, just not "pungent". And by pungent I do mean offensive to some folks but it is also the sure sign of an authentic dish. I think it is so pungent that is bitter. It doesn't appear to have anything to with adding heat though.

                  I think I have something basic missing which leads me back to the cumin. Anyone care to throw out a bona fide pungent spice mix recipe as an example? Maybe I am not adding enough chili, etc. THANKS AGAIN!!!

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: zwiller

                    "And by pungent I do mean offensive to some folks but it is also the sure sign of an authentic dish."
                    If you take pungent to mean -- I can't believe I'm writing this -- a flavor that tastes like BO in a good way, then based on your cuisine list, I think you're talking about cumin. But if you are talking about pungency in a more general way, there is no all purpose spice or blend that is going to give you a "pungent" dish. Recipe recommendations come with specifics. If you want a good chili recipe or a good vindaloo recipe, they can both be pungent in different ways because of wildly different combinations of ingredients.

                    1. re: JungMann

                      Thanks for playing nice with a noob.

                      Just did a bit more digging after your suggestion about vindaloo and I am seeing alot of coriander used with cumin. Actually 2:1 coriander to cumin. Never used that much before.

                      1. re: zwiller

                        Ground coriander is often paired with ground cumin in South Asian cuisine, but in vindaloo masala both play a supporting role compared to the chilies, cinnamon and vinegar, at least the way I make it.

                  2. Cumin = B.O. Pungent, indeed.

                    1. Sounds like you need new cumin, to me. Get a bag of seeds from a Mexican or Indian grocer. Fresh, cheap, you can toast them before grinding.

                      For grinding, I suggest you dedicate a propeller-blade or other coffee grinder to spices. Mortar and pestle works, also, but it is much more work to make it finely ground, esp. with coriander seed, another thing that should be in your arsenal.

                      1. Thanks for keeping the thread helpful and positive. I'd say the consensus is fresh ground roasted cumin at this point. Should be able to source some to try. I wonder if this will be like trying fresh cilantro/basil for the first time...

                        1. Interesting. I find cummin to have a really warm, friendly, toasty kind of aroma.
                          Excessive fenugreek though, definitely 'pungent' and 'BO'!
                          When I cook with ground cummin and coriander seed, I use a LOT. Like tablespoons rather than teaspoons.
                          And for me, cooking it off in a fat of some sort is vital.

                          1. Cumin is more heavily used in Indian cooking than Mexican. Tex-Mex chili does use it, but in most Mexican sauces it is either missing, or present only in 1/2 tsp quantities. It is an old-world spice.

                            Even older ground cumin should smell of cumin. It may not be as strong as freshly ground, but I can still identify it. Toasting cumin seeds before grinding adds another dimension (but is rarely called for in Mexican dishes).

                            To me, fresh cilantro is a more likely candidate. It too is old-world, but is widely used in Mexican cooking, especially in raw sauces. It is also used in SE Asian and Chinese cooking.

                            Mexican cooking uses a lot of mild chiles, and they provide a complex, slightly bitter note (along the same lines as chocolate and coffee). Indian cooking uses a lot of hot chiles, but not much of the milder ones. Complex bitter notes are more likely to come from spices like turmeric.

                            Some mentioned fenugreek. That is not used in Mexican cooking. It is used in Indian, though it is more prevalent in western curry powders. It has a maple note, in fact, it is used in making artificial maple flavoring.

                            Fermented fish and seafood are another source of pungency. SE Asian fish sauce is the best example. Bombay duck is an Indian fish based condiment. Mexican cooking makes some use of dried shrimp.

                            Or how about Maggi seasoning? Though European in origin, many cuisines have adopted it as their own.

                            5 Replies
                            1. re: paulj

                              > Fermented fish and seafood are another source of pungency.

                              Fish Sauce smells like wet dog.

                              1. re: GraydonCarter

                                I don't think it smells anything like wet dog. What it does smell like uncooked cannot easily be indicated in polite company--but I have some fondness for it all the same.

                                1. re: GraydonCarter

                                  Hmm, always smelled like Fish Sauce to me.
                                  May be you need to change brands.

                                  1. re: chefj

                                    Oh, I agree, it smells like fish sauce. Definitely.

                                    Edit: I mistakenly thought chefj was responding to my message....

                                2. re: paulj

                                  The Splendid Table this week has an interview with Robb Walsh, a Tex-Mex authority. He attributes the use of cumin in chili to Canary Island settlers (around 1730). It's a Middle Eastern influence, as opposed to Mexican.



                                3. Sorry if I am not posting correctly, still getting used to the forum. Thanks again for the info! Asked the missus and she agreed remembering cumin being more pungent (offensive) than the stuff I have. Still not 100% sure it's that though. Getting some good stuff anyway...

                                  I can't help but wonder if there is something to the coriander/cumin combo. Something I'll test when I have time. Never used but a tiny bit of coriander before. I think the citrus notes would be a welcome addition.

                                  Love cilantro but I don't think that's it. Maggi tastes like soy sauce to me. > umami?. I think bitter is much better descriptor now that we're getting closer to IDing it...

                                  1. Not going to risk trying to find quality spices locally in my small town. Picked up most of the items mentioned (plus a few others) from The Spice House. Should be fun experimenting. Hope to report back with results.

                                    THANKS FOR HELPING!

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: zwiller

                                      i store my dried herbs and spices in the freezer. they keep much longer this way.

                                      the pantry cabinet just has small jars of each item that i can go through quickly.

                                    2. Got my spices and although I didn't have time to toast/grind I popped some cumin seeds in my mouth and chewed and there is a night and day difference to me. Anxious to use it in a dish. Ultimately, I think the flavor I am after is a mixture of cumin, onion, garlic, and chili, but better cumin should get me closer to "BO nirvana".

                                      PS- Holy citrus the coriander I got rawks!

                                      THANKS FOR ALL THE HELP!

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: zwiller

                                        Try dry-roasting that cumin seed, then grind it to a powder for each dish. Worlds different than McCormick's ground cumin from the grocery store!

                                      2. Had to time to test out some things and I have made a breakthrough. Toasting the cumin is definitely the key. Completely different flavor profile than non-toasted. Also the toasting makes grinding better.

                                        After some digging online I tried a 50/50 blend of toasted and cumin and coriander and I have to say nearly exactly what I was looking for! THANKS ALL!