In the world of modern fusion restaurants and conceptual cuisine, it is common for diners to leave such establishments scratching their heads. For those who prepare and develop these dishes, the task has become seemingly little more than a blindfolded exercise of "pin the flavor on the plate". Heavy laden with a cacophony of flavors and buzzword techniques turns simple pasta /soup or salad dishes, for example, into a confusing experience that begs the question: Why fix it if it isn't broken? Have we gone too far in our efforts to keep food preparation full of fresh ideas? Is it possible to keep the spirit of experimentation and playfulness alive without stretching the palate beyond its ability to differentiate flavors?
For the home cook to the executive chef, regardless of the intended dish, these are questions that have exciting answers:
While the idea of "umami" is not new, it has become a thoughtless term that's tossed into every dish from doughnut to burger. Umami, having its roots in Japanese, referring to a savory flavor, is the fifth- the four subsequent palate awareness being sweet, sour, bitter and saltiness. The mystery of this fifth flavor can be found in such products as gochujang. This fermented red chili paste from Korea is a wonderful way to add depth to almost any savory dish. One of the keys in this particular ingredient is fermentation- found in many different foods from European cheeses (Gouda), Korean cabbage (kimchi) and perhaps the most classically favored fermented product ingredient around the world- beer. Combining fermented products to a dish regardless of the origin of cuisine is a creative way of putting a twist on your favorite dishes as well as adding depth.
Bouncing flavors off of one another and contrasting them is a tremendously liberating practice that creates a sense of freedom to explore umami rich fermented ingredients mentioned above. Soy sauce for example, as we know, hits the saltiness sensors on the palate. Take the sweet/salty flavor combination, something that has been exhibited in salted caramel- a combination that we know has a pleasant taste with apple. The sweetness and slight acidity of a Granny Smith apple that has been cooked down can become a welcome addition to the flavor party, but what if instead of adding salt to the caramel sauce- a dash or two of soy sauce was used? What would happen if pork tenderloin was pan seared, baked with browned butter and thyme in a classically European method? Breaking out of the box in terms of sourcing ingredients can be the key to bouncing flavors in context of the dish as a whole as opposed to being so focused on fusion that the balance of flavor is lost.
In addition to including ingredients to dishes that increase depth, perhaps the most important yet forgotten element of cooking is heat. The application of heat, and the substrate in which the ingredient is surrounded can be the easiest adjustment to add that extra pop to any dish. A pan seared steak, for example, will have a different texture than that of a charcoal grilled steak. Without delving into the science behind texture and how it connects to the brains perception of flavor, the techniques of heat application from around the world is without a doubt the simplest way to create that subtle yet powerful "ah-ha" moment when guests taste a dish. Butter poaching root vegetables such as radish and pairing them with rice wine vinegar pickled radish is not only a variance of heat applied but also incorporates the fusion of east and west cuisine while exploring the versatility of the often forgotten radish.
When stepping out of the normal routine, often the subtle changes to well known recipes can be the most well received. These thoughtful and subtle adaptations exceed the bounds of fusion and cause the preparer and diner alike to experience that "ah-ha" moment where the dish in front of them has an increased depth which elevates the most basic activity- eating food. The preparation of food has brought people together through the ages and continues to do so. We at Gmarketchef.com would love to hear about your culinary adventures or any topics that you'd like to discuss. Please feel free to comment below. Until next time, keep your knife sharp and your mind open.