Taste is communicated to the body through receptors found throughout the mouth, known as our taste buds. The majority of taste buds are located on the top part of the tongue, although some are on the roof of the mouth. Ever notice that when you have a stuffed nose you really cannot taste anything? This is because smell is the main determinant of a food item's flavor. The five tastes the body recognizes are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami.
Umami is an ancient concept, although the official term was recently coined. Umami is a flavor caused by the interaction of glutamates, an amino acid, and certain receptors on the tongue.
What does this mean for the cook? Everything! We make our reputations on taste. Human beings eat with their eyes first. Presenting food artistically affords the cook an opportunity to make a great first impression, all the while allowing for exploration of the creative side of the brain and honest expression of the self. However, presentation is there for only fifteen seconds. Ultimately, it is flavor that holds the memory.
When I conceptualize a dish I ask myself three pivotal questions. What do I want to see on the plate? What do I want to smell? What do I want to feel in the mouth? To be a proficient cook one must be a chemist. The combinations of ingredients that conspire to create unique flavor profiles are endless. The job of the cook is not unlike the job of a matchmaker: to find two or more divergent substances and get them together. There are no mistakes. Even the most disastrous, inedible experiments can become future great accomplishments if one is paying attention.
Can a cook get too exotic with flavor combinations? My brilliant wife, who incidentally is my personal taste tester, is usually quite open-minded. Yet, one day while I was in the kitchen lovingly creating a magnificently intricate dessert, using rose water and lavender, my wife casually slid by me and graced me with, “Are you making soap?” Her line was classic, the moment unforgettable.
Finding the correct balance of flavors is not an exact science but when done right it can resemble scientific aptitude. Luckily the world is teeming with fantastic “scientist” cooks. Denise Fletcher is one such supremely talented cook.
Fletcher was classically taught French cuisine at the Shatec Institutes in Singapore. Being of Portuguese, English, and Asian descent, she infuses her cuisine with these marvelously distinctive flavors. Her cookbook, Quickies: Morning, Noon, and Night is a treasure trove of incredibly inspired dishes, all told in a fun, humorous, conversational style with enough charisma to disarm even the grumpiest person. Based in Singapore, what Anthony Bourdain calls one of the best places to eat on earth, she runs the blog Quickies on the Dinner Table where she consistently posts original recipes.
I would submit into evidence her entire cookbook if I were trying to prove a case for flavor profiles in court. Nevertheless, I will recap three courses that highlight great skill and knowledge of combining ingredients. Savory Breakfast Quick Bread is definitely something you want to wake up to. Loaded with bold flavors like Gouda cheese, onion, black olive, green olive, red bell pepper, and tuna, it is guaranteed to springboard you out of bed. She reaches into her Portuguese background to produce Caldo Verde, a green soup packed with flavor and differing textures. Here spicy garlic sausage and chili flakes supply the heat, while sweet onion, white vermouth, and a pinch of sugar provide a sweet kiss for balance. Yukon Gold potatoes, my absolute favorite by the way, give the soup body. Lastly, Beef, Ginseng, and Wolfberry Tea is a work of pure genius. This “tea” is made with lean beef, red apple, and wolfberries. Blanched fine noodles and a drizzle of sesame oil finish the dish. However, the star of the show is the ginseng. Ginseng has numerous medicinal benefits but you would be pleasantly surprised at how good it tastes.
Master cooks like Denise Fletcher understand that the most important flavors of a given preparation are those of the main component. Grilled beef tenderloin should taste of beef. Conversely, plain, bland foods should be made interesting by combining well thought out ingredients. The next time you have a party in your mouth, make sure you thank the “scientist” that made it happen.