What does it take to reach food perfection, or is there such a thing? Some Mesubim followers and readers would say the perfect foods are homemade, while others would argue the opposite, or even say it was a punishment for them at home. In my case my mom inspired me and she was an accomplished home chef.
Perfect foods could be defined as those foods that are healing. But in most cases those foods are scarce, or even adulterated. Perfect foods are raw materials grown naturally (forged) with minimal human interference, such as wild mountain vegetables in the Swiss Alps, Scandinavian, American forests or Japanese mountains.
In Japan wild vegetables are called sansai, seasonal and difficult to find on a regular basis. But when it comes to food, perfection isn’t just about raw materials, it’s also determined by process and knowledge. You can take the best raw materials and destroy them very easily and this happens all too often. In Asia we’ve learned that the best way to prepare foods is by using a simple yet reliable process. These processes are developed over centuries of trial and error.
Taste perfection is not about preference or passion, these are considered key factors, yet when it comes to developing a better understanding of the importance of taste it requires much more thought. Taste is based on various systems and hierarchy, a well-defined structure just like any other system. Food hierarchy isn’t random and involves the study of tradition, yet too often chefs try to be creative without enough knowledge.
The best example is a chef who thinks he is a “tastemaker” and works with Coca-Cola and chicken, or uses sub-standard materials, chemicals and or cheap substitutes. These types of chefs abuse the very nature of these structures, or are not aware of the importance of nature (raw materials) and tradition. There is something to be said about tradition, and in most cases the transmission of customs and techniques are passed from generation to generation proving to be an excellent basis to work from, and especially in Asian culture and cuisine.
By definition the perfect dish is often based on popularity but that system fails. McDonald’s is popular but their foods are far from perfect. A single hamburger won’t kill you yet it is just soulless. So any perfect dish should have soul, at least some characteristics of having soul.
In fact, many foods are consumed almost entirely for the pleasure value they impart. Some would still argue the perfect tasting hamburger is McDonald’s, and I argue that it isn’t, but for a different reason than you think. There is an obvious and good reason why McDonald’s sells millions of hamburgers every year – they are tasty, or at least the special sauce is tasty, as this sauce smothers the over cooked burgers. But McDonald’s is forced into making a certain product given the scale of their business.
I could argue that they are no worse than a small $50 steak in a Parisian restaurant serving a pepper sauce steak smothered in a creamy pepper sauce is no better. Therefore we should be careful to generalize about taste preferences, unless they are properly and clearly defined.
The Poulet de Bresse is a perfect ingredient and poached perfectly it is always succulent. Then add truffled cream and butter and you have an extravagant, intense dish you’ll never forget – but is it perfect? This is one of those dishes that focuses on the intensity of Italian white truffles. We are often persuaded by food tastes when concentrating on hedonic flavors that enhance taste due to the simple processing by the brain. Some foods can be easily recognized and do not require any detailed cognitive processing such as the simple sweet taste of a summer peach, as its juices running between your fingers.
Food and tastes, or perfection of foods are complex and biases are often influenced by socioeconomic background, or by food preferences which very extensively. In Iceland, a traditional dish called hákarl is made by fermenting the meat of a sleeper shark, while in Scotland, they are devoted to haggis.
We learn to savour some dishes above others, but these preferences can also become limiting, as in the case of pasta. But having said that, it mostly comes to down to process, a pasta processed in the south of Italy varies depending on the flour water and drying process. In the north of Italy, it depends on the egg flour and water.
Taste for most is the experience of a many sensory characteristics, some consciously or subconsciously, we make a decision on whether or not we like the food. The sensory characteristics are based on appearance, aroma, taste and texture all will influence this decision to a greater or lesser extent. Sweet tastes elicit large eyes and a smile, while bitter tastes create tightened facial expressions and or lips.
So what is perfect anyway? A perfect dish must have a chef behind it who has the understanding of what makes a perfect dish. That is quality of raw materials, technique, balance, tradition, intrigue and most importantly, can it withstand the test of time?
Now think of Ferran Adria, a chef that changed the boundaries of cooking in a way that has never been seen. I cannot tell you if his dishes were perfect, but they were intriguing. His technique was an exploration in kitchen process and it changed the way we see and prepare foods. So many of his visual aspects were mimetic, something that can be a trap, or a treasure in cuisine. But Ferran has the intelligence to stand back and see the difference – that is what makes him a great chef.
So a single tasters opinion based on, “I like it, or I don’t like” isn’t enough, and really is not relevant in defining the perfect dish. It is only relevant in relationship to your own personal preference, and in the context of what is the perfect dish, it is probably not. You cannot just say a dish is perfect or imperfect unless you have a specific reason, a technical reason, and a sound argument.
Simply put there are 6 tastes we detect including fat, bitter, sweet, sour, salty, umami. Humans detect chemicals in food, they relay this information to the brain, where there are specific areas for each basic taste in a brain region called the gustatory cortex. Eating something salty activates one part of the gustatory cortex, while sweetness activates another separate area.
A dish or food to be perfect must have the right framework and the right taster. For example, I read that a psychologist at Yale, discovered that people who avoided strong-tasting foods like alcohol and hot peppers actually have more taste buds than non-choosy people. These tasters actually perceive tastes more intensely because their brains receive a stronger taste signal from their tongues.
But is it true that the perfect dish or foods can only be perfect if they gain popularity and qualify as perfect? The answer should be yes, because if every person on planet earth said, the perfect burger is from McDonalds, it wouldn’t change my opinion. But perfect is also about exposure and perspective and if you take the native Americans, the Miwoks eat every other kind of edible vegetable matter as a food source, including bulbs, grasshoppers, seeds and all kinds of mushrooms.
Think that babies develop their taste buds early on, and partially it is genetic or based on ethnic background or environment. What I find interesting is because babies have no teeth, they do not appreciate the range of texture adults enjoy. Texture is critical and often overlooked in the west, and it helps expand taste as a means of stimulation.
In the Asia people are used texture as integral to taste, and the West it is more complicated. Most tasters are not well versed with food-textures, yet a potato chip has plenty of texture and is one of the most popular American foods. Fries are crispy on the outside, and warm and tender inside. So think about the different varying degrees of texture and how it influences your taste.
If your children wake up and craves rice Krispies then you begin to see what I am talking about. Puffed rice is served as a popular street food in India. In the case of rice Krispies, sugar is added but it’s the sound and taste of popping that excites the taster and stimulates their interest. You also probably heard of pop rocks, those that are carbonated. Popping candy are small pieces of hard candy that have been gasified with carbon dioxide under super-atmospheric pressure and pop in your mouth.
Now think of sour in Western culture and you’ll find synthetic sour tastes made with chemical that are used in candies, those sour belts that intrigue kids. So it becomes apparent that taste isn’t as easy as it seems. What is easy is to say, “I like that or I’ll eat it that again” and in many cases tasters eat the same foods over and over again throughout their life depending on their preference and cycles.
It’s clear the story of foods and tastes is no doubt driven by taste preference or by ones mood and it makes sense because people eat what they like. Restaurant chefs try to create food combinations that intrigue or excite or simply tell a simple story. This makes me think of a crab salad I tried in Tokyo at Bulgari. A simple dish created by Luca Fantin based on domestic Japanese products. His salad is creamy without the use of cream, a cool idea he uses a puree of romanesco. The sensation of warm and cold at the same time and those spiky tiny tips of the romanesco flirt with your tongue.
Think for a minute; in order to create this dish you are forced to build a structure using micro and macro elements. The idea of turnips sliced and folded in half and the crunch beneath, lettuce sawing between your teeth with the soft mixed aromatic herbs. The tickle of edible flowers and the white strawberry’s sweet with a slight sour twist.
Any great dish can only become great when a chef understands the notion of how to use ingredients and develops taste by using structure seeking balance. A simple dish consisting of Tarabagani king crab (caught in winter/autumn) mixed with sweetness from a vinaigrette of maple syrup.
Creamy-umami balanced by fat-acidity and the sweet-sour of the white strawberry. It was creamy /yet cream-less/ the element of surprise, a clever combination that evokes warmth. It is not only the quality of domestic crab hidden beneath, this dish was bound together with taste-satisfaction.
Taste isn’t simple, it isn’t straight forward, or easy to define given the varying complexities of taste, and the fact that taste is personal and when it comes to defining taste, the taster should think twice about what he/she is eating. The idea of taste relies on several key factors which are described above and listed below.
This is all food for thought.
-Quality Raw materials