substitute substances

A famous substitute for cocoa is carob. Although a whole health-food industry keeps maintaining this myth, I can’t imagine how the idea of a comparison between these products came about. Carob has its own taste. If I was completely crazy about it (I am not), I wouldn’t consider cocoa as a substitute for it either.

The modern editor of one of my Indonesian cookbooks claims that one could use parsley as a substitute for the perishable and, at the time, difficult-to-get Thai basil. This is of course nonsense. There is no really good substitute for Thai basil. Try regular basil and add a pinch of star anise, and you’ll still be nowhere. Sorry.

I still know too little about the varieties of Chinese cooking wine to be completely sure about substituting it with dry sherry, as one of my cookbooks suggested. This is, on the other hand, a cookbook in which, by a quirk of ancient computer text editing, all page numbers in cross-references were reduced to “00” – perhaps the “substitute for” comments were reduced to “sherry” by the same software glitch.

It seems that the poor parsley has to endure most of such random substitute assignments. Recently I saw the advice to replace cilantro with parsley. This is sillier than the bunch of all the other nonsense-recommendations put together. And yet I had a big surprise with this last example yesterday:

We were making a batch of ad-hoc pinto bean chili, to which I added cumin and other spices, and freshly ground coriander seeds, since we were out of cilantro. This is at least another part of the same plant, I thought. At the end I added a few tablespoons of finely chopped parsley, just for the sake of its own. Astonishingly, the combination tasted almost like fresh cilantro. It seems that its specific strong flavor is partly caused by the greenness and partly by the corianderiness, so to speak. Unfortunately that whiff of authenticity was gone after a few minutes of the stew on the table, but nevertheless, this was pretty much closer to any true substitute than I ever came with anything else in my kitchen.

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