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Understanding flavor principles

A great way to understand a new cuisine is to break it down into its basic flavor principles. What are flavor principles? We're glad you asked.

The food revolution in the United States has helped breed a more sophisticated consumer and added pressure on restaurateurs to deliver more authentic foods. But before you add new globally influenced items to your menu, getting to understand the flavor principles of a cuisine or region is important.

In the early 1970s Elisabeth Rozin published “The Flavor-Principle Cookbook” where she identified the defining ingredients within a cuisine as a way of better understanding the foundations and constructions of various dishes. When those defining ingredients are combined, she showed, a familiar flavor is achieved that is recognizable as that particular cuisine.

Fundamentally, as Rozin illustrated, most cuisines have three common ingredients that take lead roles in their cooking. In Chinese cuisine, for instance, a mixture of soy sauce, rice wine and ginger would have a “Chinese taste.” The big three in Mediterranean cuisines are wheat, olives and grapes, and in Thai cuisine they are fish sauce, lime and chilies. These are not to be found in a master flavor principle textbook yet each educated chef subjectively determines what these are.

Much the same way a musician must understand how combining certain notes can make a “blues” sound or a “jazz” sound, chefs must know how to combine certain ingredients to make a Chinese or a French dish before they can improvise authentic versions on their own.

To begin identifying a cuisine’s defining ingredients, you should think in terms of ingredient categories: aromatics, fats, liquids, pastes, herbs & spices, acids, sweeteners or compound seasonings such as ketchup, Worcestershire or hoisin sauce. One should also look to the variety of cooking techniques employed by a particular culture to help in identifying a cuisine’s flavor principles. Once the menu developer can get a grasp of the common flavors they can begin to introduce authentic flavors onto their menu and meet what the savvy diner is craving.

The categories

Aromatics lay the foundation of flavor as they are often used as a start for most dishes. In China, the aromatic base is ginger, garlic and scallions. This aromatic combination is usually the base for the wide variety of stir-fry dishes we see in that country’s cuisine. In the West, the combination of onions, carrots and celery, otherwise known as “mirepoix,” is often the base for stews, braises, soups and in the flavor development of our classical French sauces. Sometimes they are added at the end of the cooking process to preserve the vivid aroma, such as when Thai chefs add crushed lemon grass stalks or kaffir lime leaves at the end of cooking a curry. This is also similar to how fresh basil is added right before the pasta is tossed in a fresh Italian tomato sauce.

Next, you may take a look at the fats that are used in the cuisine’s cooking.

It could be animal fats such as the rendered fat of pigs or lard used in Mexican cuisines, or it could be plant-based oils such as olive oil used in Italy and Greece, mustard oil used in North Indian cuisines or ghee (clarified butter) which is used throughout the whole of India (and even burned during wedding ceremonies).

Liquids can be used as a cooking medium or as a seasoning. Stocks and broths based on seafood, poultry and meat have long been a trademark of any great French chef. In Asia they often rely more on concentrated forms of protein-based liquids such as fish sauce and soy sauce. A dish’s flavor can be impacted by other liquids, such as alcohol-laced flavoring like wine, vodka or beer. Sometimes they are the essential ingredient that is a trademark of that dish—what would the French Coq au Vin be without copious amounts of red wine? In China they would opt for Shao Xing, a rice wine that is use for dumpling fillings and meat simmering liquids. Dairy items like cream not only add flavor but can be used as a thickener.

Acidic flavor attributes are added by vinegars, citrus or even fruit such as tamarind. In China, rice vinegar is most common while the French rely on grape-wine-based vinegars—each lends colors, flavors and different levels of acidity to the dish.

Balanced dishes have the acidic taste balanced by some type of sweetener. The source for sweetness comes from a variety of different ingredients and choosing a particular ingredient to sweeten a dish will change the character of the dish. For example, you can choose tamarind if you wanted to have a sweet/sour note or you could use palm sugar, which would give the dish a more muted sweetness.

Spices, which can be made from bark, seeds, buds, fruit, stems or roots, add definite flavor, aroma and color to a dish (e.g., saffron, turmeric, pepper). Herbs are sometimes used as a garnish or flavoring or, as in pesto, used as the primary thickener. In fact, as one moves closer to the equator you see an increased use of herbs and spices. It is theorized that this increased use of spices and herbs may be due to the short-term preservative effects of spices and herbs used in combination as well as their antimicrobial and antibacterial properties.

Although not a new concept, we as modern culinarians now have a myriad of compound seasonings to shorten the preparation process where some of the aforementioned ingredients are combined to create flavorful mixtures. Especially in Asian cooking, these prepared condiments, like Chinese hoisin sauce, Thai curry pastes and chili pastes across Asia, enable a chef to create authentic flavors with minimal time and expertise. North Africa touts Harissa—a caraway-spiked chile paste, the Mexicans may use a molé paste, and here in the United States ketchup reigns supreme.

and don’t forget...

Although ingredients are the foundation, the cooking techniques that are employed also help form the flavors that we experience. For example, the Chinese technique of stir-frying involves using a high heat source to achieve the Wok Hay flavor, an illusive smoky flavor that translates into English as “Breath of the Wok.”

It is not always heat application that provides another layer of flavor; preparation techniques like the Chinese technique of velveting creates a tender moist texture to meats and seafood. The meat is placed in a marinade of egg white, cornstarch and rice wine. Just before cooking, the meat is “velveted” in either barely simmering water or in hot oil whereby the meat is partially cooked and added to the stir-fry at the end of the cooking process. This velveting process also protects the meat from the intense heat of the wok yielding meat that is tender and juicy. Another cooking technique that can help you understand a cuisine: frying spices in coconut oil before making a Thai curry illicit unique flavors that would not be achieved if the paste was simply boiled with the same ingredients.

Another aspect to take into account when discussing flavor principles is the culture itself. Consider the comparison of salsa verde made in Mexico versus one made in Italy. Or the aromatic “spiciness” of a Moroccan tagine versus the intense hot “spiciness” of a Thai dish. The levels of intensity when it comes to flavors will also vary with each culture. In Asia, the bitter taste scores very high on the flavor scale, whereas it scores very low on the Western palate. However, this is changing, and it may be due to the introduction of some vegetables once employed exclusively by the Italian culture. Radicchio and arugula used to be relegated to fine dining restaurants yet now can be found in chain restaurants across the country.

In a 2000 interview Chef Mark Miller—who with a background in anthropology and cultural studies lectures on the topic of flavor around the world—states that “when people say a food has no flavor; this means they have no cultural background with which to organize what’s being received.” Thus familiarity leads to acceptance.

The flavor world we live in is in constant flux. Foods evolve, consumers learn and chefs expand their culinary repertoire. The leaders in the restaurant business will strive to learn more about the different flavor principles that each country or region has. Take the time to travel, taste, cook and refine the dishes that you offer to your guests. Get an understanding, then create items that fit your menu and pay respect to the original versions from their places of origin.

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