Tasting Maillards

Often I have conversations with friends, some food professionals, and others just foodies who enjoy the culinary journey I am on. I try to explain the phenomena of why Italian and Japanese foods are so popular, so similar yet far away from each other in taste, yet so close.

I ask people, why are two foods from two nations thousands of kilometers away so similar, and I get all kinds of answers. In a way, it’s unfair because when you have to think quick on your feet, your ideas aren’t always sensible, but sometimes more accurate than you think.

So why do people love Italian food? Before answering, think about it, and think carefully. Because taste preferences have numerous factors that influence your choices, some are cultural, while others are just based on the wiring of human taste.

It is commonly believed that taste happens in your tongue, but the ability to perceive the five different tastes on separate areas of our tongues has been a long-held myth. Dr. Zuker a Columbia University Professor claims taste occurs not on the tongue but in the brain where the neurons responsible for different tastes are triggered. I believe it, but at the same time smell is just as important as sight when it comes to opening tasting channels, however, a small group named Thimus from Italy is specializing in biometric and neuroscience, helping establish the importance of the brain levels in taste.

Recently while in Puglia, I walked into a bakery and smelled bread baking, and thought oh-wow-homemade rustic bread. I became excited by the idea of tasting freshly baked bread has that golden crust and the indistinguishable smell that warms your body and leaves you with a hungry gut.

The familiar smell of bread baking takes us to bakeries all over the globe, but was the bread as good as it smelled? The answer is no but this is a good example of how we are influenced by aromas. Undoubtedly fast foods are the best examples of anticipation based on smell.

I often point to the noteworthiness of the Maillard reaction in cooking to help readers become more aware of how important process is in food preparation. This particular reaction of sugars that zings your nasal passage with aromas of warm bread when we imagine the first bite into a warm bagel.

Maillard: https://mesubim.com/2014/06/14/oven-finishing-meat-maillard/

Melanoidins are one of the potential end products, long, polymeric compounds, which act as brown pigments, giving the cooked foods brown coloration. The Maillard reaction is referred to a non-enzymatic browning reaction, as these melanoidins are produced without the aid of enzymes. This differs from enzymatic or oxidative browning, which is what turns fruits such as avocados, apples or bananas brown. /source internet/

Let’s skip getting into chemical reactions and agree that many foods we all adore benefit the higher temperatures, caramelization and subsequently pyrolysis becoming more pronounced. We never forget those very signal aromas and that’s why French bread is so popular or the profound clasical French croissant.

Certainly coffee no doubt feels as it belongs to Italians who have a long history in toasting beans. The roasting and extraction-intensity are partially influenced by the Maillard reaction and coffee’s more common compounds, namely, carbohydrates and proteins are seemingly ordinary compounds but contribute to coffee’s compelling aroma.

Carbohydrates are perhaps some of the most misunderstood chemical properties and remain one of the largest family of compounds in organic chemistry. As the name implies, carbohydrates are simply hydrated carbon molecules with complex structure. Of course, the most common carbohydrate is that of sucrose or table sugar, but there are literally thousands of molecules in this branch of chemistry. During roasting, sugars play a critical role with many of them participating in the Maillard reaction as molecules decompose to form aromas and brown color. It becomes clear why certain processes impregnate (without us even knowing) our memory forever, we develop cravings or recognize aromas that make us feels those very sudden “wow” cravings. Is it sugars that are the general human taste lubricant connecting all the dots?

Coming back to Italian cuisine, I ask people to list the top food ingredients, and they usually come up with pizza, tomato, pasta, garlic, olive oil, Parmesan cheese and of course coffee. If I do the same for Japanese they would consider Dashi as one of the single most important ingredients but dashi isn’t one ingredient, it is two or more.

Dashi: https://mesubim.com/2016/01/08/dashi-katsuobushi/

Foods with high concentrations of umami or glutamates such as Reggiano Parmesano cheese is still one of the world’s most popular hard cheeses having a high content of free glutamates. The score of Parmesano Reggiano is nearly equal to kombu which is used in most Japanese soup stocks.

But the fact of glutamates isn’t enough to single handily connect Japanese and Italian foods and the next factor to consider combinations of products. So for those who adore miso soup, it isn’t just the miso, although miso is an umami intensified flavor, it is often the combination of ingredients such as tofu, neggi /onion/ and dashi.

This starts to open the pathway to understanding the close association between Japanese foods and Italian foods. So in the use of multiple ingredients, we begin to understand how taste is structural. Some would say that is obvious and it is, but for some chefs, they fully understand the idea of structure, and no doubt chefs such as Ferran and Blumenthal, they are masters in understanding structure process through the examination of science.

So now take a single ingredient such as tomato which is laced with umani and now take it, make a sauce, add salt, olive oil, and cheese. Now you have created an umami expressway through pyrolysis after you bake it at 400°C for less than a 3 minutes. But the cheese isn’t brown, and the cheese is melted, but the chemical reaction of the oils, fats and salted tomato dough, is enough.

I am not trying to confuse matters, each food has its own unique pattern of compounds, and is a reaction to a sequence of either raw, hot and or cold sensations. These play a key role in taste and perception, but if you leave them aside for a minute, environmental factors can influence food or taste more than the taste itself. Take into consideration that combination of ingredients and the precise combination will leave you with a taste experience extraordinaire but if you come in from the freezing winter and have a hot coffee or chocolate, it can be one of the most memorable experiences.

So the idea of sushi isn’t just about the fish, although fish seems to be the focus and in some cases it is. But if you think about it, Jiro and many other sushi chefs aren’t focused just on fatty fish. At the same time, it is true that the single most important fish in sushi is hon-maguro.

Hon Maguro: https://mesubim.com/2016/05/13/hon-maguro-quality-1st-video/

Sushi is more about the journey, and if you eat the fish alone, and without the sushi rice, it could be uninteresting sushi. But when you walk into a perfect setting, a wooden counter made from hinoki and the purity of the design, or the chef’s knife, it all enlightens the culinary journey.

In fact, most fish except a few have a taste that we identify individually. In most cases, it is the combination of ingredients, and in sushi, it’s just that. The rice is no doubt the key factor, the vinegar, mirin, wasabi, nikiri, and seaweed or the tsume.

In fact, most fish except a few have a taste that we identify individually. In most cases, it is the combination of ingredients, and in sushi, it’s just that. The rice is no doubt the key factor, the vinegar, mirin, wasabi, nikiri, and seaweed or the tsume.

Tsume: https://mesubim.com/2016/03/30/tsume-explained/

Each single ingredients have the perfect sequence and combination, and if they are broken down into the perfect culinary food combinations, behind each culinary combination we find a common denominator. But not only this denominator is what drives our cravings.

The idea of sweetness, texture, temperature, and how single ingredients are combined in a simplified way is what influences our taste preferences and behavior more than we know.

It’s starting to become clear why people adore Italian food, and Japanese foods, the combination of flavors, simplicity, or sweetness of starchy carbohydrates, and sushi rice has the same effect as the pizza dough, the common denominator, and it doesn’t matter if it’s hot or cold.

But the simplicity of food and taste is complex, and if you take pizza and ask yourself why is the emblem of Italian identity, it’s because really because of its simplicity, ease, taste and easy accessibility throughout Italy.

The sweetness of tomato sauce, the rich fatty taste of the cheese melted and you touch and eat it with your hands! Ah, that is something most people never think about! Sushi is a hand food as is pizza and it is simple and straight forward, the perfect combination of just a few ingredients is what makes it so darn genius. Sushi’s

Sushi is a hand food as is pizza is, so it is simple and straight forward, the perfect combination of just a few ingredients is what makes it so darn genius. Sushi’s nikiri, or pasta Pomodoro’s last touch of finely grated parmesan cheese, and the natural salt of the cheese are all part of the savory umami flavors.

Nikiri: https://mesubim.com/2016/04/28/mechanical-precision-video-takahashi-ginza/

Think of foods that are made up of 2-3 ingredients and there aren’t too many nations that keep their key foods as simple. From my experience, these kinds of foods help us to define taste more easily and process it in a way obtaining a greater sense of appreciation and gratification.

So one of the common denominators between Japanese food and Italian food is certainly in part carbohydrates and the way they are treated. Maybe it’s the perfect bite that signals our brain and says perfection, or is it the variety of different carbohydrate solutions detected before they were broken down into sugar molecules?

I guess the long and short is, taste is complex, tasters process taste preferences via receptors, be it a combination of tongue, sight or smell. The idea of taste perception is the focus of most scientists, and my interest is more on the structure of taste. Taste hierarchy has yet to be clearly defined because the focus is on identifying how we taste first and foremost, and until we do, it will be business as usual.