Tastes, Textures & Flavours
Tastes, textures and flavours are the elements of cooking that are closest to my heart. Maybe I’m not much of a visual person, but I feel that the aesthetic beauty of something can be a bit deceptive.
For me, taste and texture are king when it comes to eating and I have focused on these elements in my own cooking. Don’t get me wrong, when the presentation is equal to and complements the flavour of food you’re onto something special, but I think it’s putting the cart before the horse to focus primarily on the fleeting beauty of food.
There is a technical difference between taste and flavour so I’ll quickly define the two before I discuss them.
Taste refers to the 5 tastes we are all familiar with. These are; Sweet, Salty, Sour, Bitter and Umami. The first 4 should be pretty commonplace and I expect most people are aware of the last one, Umami. If not, Umami is the savoury taste. We perceive it through Glutamate receptors and this is why Monosodium Glutamate is used in some cuisines as it is the Umami equivalent of adding table salt to food.
Flavour incorporates two senses; taste and scent. The olfactory system is in full swing when we talk about flavour and it’s the interplay between the tastebuds, your sense of smell and ultimately your memory centre in your brain that is so prevalent with the sense of smell that makes flavour so evocative. Seriously, in the right frame of mind in the right place at the right time, flavours can hit you in the pit of your stomach and transport you miles away; hurtling you into your past in an instant to a time when the scent of cut grass and smoky chimneys was in the air.
In my mind, flavour is the holy grail of cooking – it is the highest form of kung fu in the kitchen and it should always be attempted, even if it is rarely achieved.
Overall, taste is easy to manipulate. We have ready-made powders and solutions that can add tastes to complement food. The trick with taste is to balance obvious imbalances to make food more enjoyable. Sweet and sour are two ends of the spectrum and they can be used to blunt one or the other. Salt and bitter come into their own when balancing rich, fatty foods or sweet sickly foods. The next time you have a steak with a rich sauce, try some bitter olives chopped with garlic and lemon juice – it will lift the richness and give it lightness.
Manipulating flavour is more of an art form. It relies on understanding people’s relationship and memory of food. What smells and tastes evoke feelings and associations in yourself or your diner? I always knew on a gut level when it was December in a hotel I worked. The scent of roasting onions and reducing chicken stock, garlic and smoky bacon. There was the warm clinging smell of reducing orange juice, wine and cloves – it was December again.
So when I think about flavours I start with the big guns – smoking. Smoking foods is easy and when you use Manuka chips the smell is unmistakeable. It takes your mind to outdoor bonfires in midsummer, it puts you in touch with the relationship between fire and cooking meat. Other aromas that conjure up feelings for me are: chargrilling, fresh green pestos and chopped parsley with that chlorophyll blast of cut grass; zested citrus fruits; roasted root vegetables and garlic; cooking meat or reducing bone broths.
If you can distill some of these aromas and flavours then deliver them on a plate, your meal is going in a special direction.
Textures – and how your brain perceives them – shouldn’t be overlooked. The food industry certainly doesn’t overlook textures and even brazenly asserts that ‘once you pop you can’t stop’ – they know they’ve got your number when they create products with the perfect crunch index.
We can use textures in a less nefarious way. Your body perceives itself to be more satiated (full) when you have chewed your food more before swallowing. Foods that require a bit of chewing are usually quite fibrous and fibre is essential in your diet for gut health. It has been suggested that our low carb diet needs more conscious inclusion of fibre as it can be lower in fibre if you don’t eat a lot of vegetables and this can have an impact on gut health in general. Textures can and should be used to improve the enjoyment of food too, and can break up a dish that might otherwise be a bit ‘samey’.
So that’s the theory! As a reward for making it this far, I’ll share a recipe that touches on each of the categories above.
This Indian pesto-style sauce has an awesome taste profile and can pair up with light dishes to give them excitement or rich dishes to balance them out and cut through the richness. It is so simple to make, give it a go!
- 2 cups coriander leaves
- 1 cup of mint leaves
- 2 green chillies (seeds retained if you like the heat)
- 1 chopped onion
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 tsp of ground cumin
- 2 tsp of chaat masala
- 1 lemon or lime juiced
- 1 tsp Salt
- Olive Oil
Blend together to a fine paste, season to taste.
Chaat spice is dried mango powder with other spices in it too. You can find it in Indian supermarkets. It has a unique flavour and is essential to this sauce. The sauce should be smooth with a deep pastel green colour – I love it!
Smoked foods are always effective for injecting some flavour into your food, once you have had a practice with the garlic you can move onto anything you like.
Smoked Garlic Aioli
- 12 cloves of Garlic
- 3 cups Olive Oil
- ½ cup of Manuka chips
- 2 tbsp Vinegar
- 2 whole Eggs
- Salt and pepper to taste
Take half of the garlic cloves and with half a cup of the oil gently cook them for 5 minutes in a pan. This will soften them and mellow their flavour out. Spoon them out onto some kitchen paper to drain and allow the oil to cool.
Make a DIY smoker by lining the inside of a tray with tin foil, then laying a fine layer of manuka chips on the foil. Find a cooling wire or some implement with a few holes in it and sit both the cooked and the raw garlic on the wire rack, cover the tray with tin foil and make sure it is sealed as tightly as you can before placing on the heat.
Once you start seeing smoke come out of the tray reduce the heat slightly to maintain the smoke (this takes a bit of practice with your own particular set-up, the aim is to get a deep smoke but without any hint of burnt acrid taste. If you do it often enough you should get to the point where you can set a timer over the heat and you know it takes 9 minutes every time). Give it about 10 minutes to impart the smoky flavour.
Once the time is up, turn the heat off and let rest for a further 10 minutes. Transfer the garlic to your blender and make the aioli by adding in the vinegar and your eggs before slowly drizzling in the remainder of your oil including the oil you used to cook the garlic. Season the aioli with salt, pepper and some vinegar if necessary.
This sauce goes amazing with cooked meats or fish and you can add a soft herb like chives, parsley or dill to lift it to the next level.
This simple recipe can be tossed through salads, added to egg dishes and adds crunch to any recipe. It also gives a burst of colour for the “eyesy” people that ‘eat with their eyes’ – disdain.
Toasted Nuts Turmeric
- ½ cup Hazelnuts
- ½ cup Walnuts
- ½ cup Brazil Nuts
- ½ cup Cashew
- ½ cup Black and White Sesame Seeds
- ½ cup Pumpkin Seeds
- ½ cup Sunflower Seeds
- 2 tsp Turmeric
- 1 tsp Chilli Flakes
- 1 tsp Cumin
- 1 tbsp Vinegar
- 2 tsp Salt
- 2 tbsp Olive Oil
Mix all ingredients together and toast for 10 – 15 minutes on 180C stirring halfway through.
Have a go at these recipes and more importantly, experiment with the ideas of tastes, textures and flavours as it will make your food more exciting and your eating more delicious.
It’s also quite fun to judge what element might be added to a particular dish you might eat at a restaurant or cafe to take it to the next level – in this way food can inspire you and give you ideas to play with.