Taste is essential to any culinary experience both visually and physically, a product of our genes, the environment we develop taste patterns based on our individual needs and it’s all about our receptors triggered by taste.
I find myself listening to my Doctor’s nurse speaking about her Japanese experience, her first encounter with “jelly fish” in Tokyo, the thought for most would be “yuck” and it isn’t a matter of “yuck” it is a matter of how we think about foods we have never tried. Think about it, birds nest doesn’t provoke a yummy taste for most who haven’t tried it, and those foods which create a challenge based on the food itself are always more difficult. Is that why McDonald’s is so successful, they have it all figured out; special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles on a sesame seed bun. That just about captivates the full range of taste and it costs very little to fill your tank.
So, she thought jellyfish would be slimy and marginally disgusting, but still pursued trying it and discovered it was crunchy, not slimy – hurrah! Jellyfish is a perfect example of how we taste, and the jellyfish isn’t about fish, it is the sensation of jelly, like jello. Think of fugu and the fugu’s texture and taste, the fish is tasteless. But eating fugu is all about texture and the taste comes from the added texture, temperature, and condiments.
We know our perception of food influences us as much as anything, either excited, anxious or afraid and hesitant. And no doubt the environment is crucial, and someone growing up in New York wouldn’t likely be used to eating jellyfish, unless he/she was Asian. Whenever I hear about these stories it reminds me of how taste develops and for my nurse it was simple, she tried it and discovered her preconceived notions were wrong. In the end, she thought it as good, and I thought how strange. All kinds of things determine our taste path, but don’t underestimate a person’s life experience.
The idea of pure taste is always based on “flavor” and naturally because our taste receptors are designed to perceive taste; bitter, sweet, sour, salty, umami and yes fat. Foods enter our palate and we perceive taste in a matter of seconds, no doubt part of why you might like a specific food while your friend finds it bitter because of the different genes. And all of this is scientific and makes good sense, however, my focus isn’t scientific, it is more about the idea of why people, in general, develop community preferences when it comes to specific cuisines styles or types.
Let’s take what I call Taste 3T based on; time, temperature, texture all of which are influenced by our mood. Our moods help determine most of what we do and if we are tired or energetic it will ultimately influence our interest and level of concentration.
Now think of sushi as the best example. Thirty years+ ago when I started eating sushi my Mom warned me to stay away, citing the dangers, I too was afraid. I pursued sushi despite the warnings and survived all these years of eating raw fish. However, I was skittish so I ate mostly the cured or cooked fish. Now fast forward and I write about sushi, a mainstream food served in almost every corner of the globe and even on the beach of Mykonos.
In sushi, the basics are cold fish, warmed rice, nikiri or shoyu. For most who are amateurs, nikiri is handcrafted by each chef and includes shoyu and other secret ingredients such as sugar, sake or mirin. It is swiped over the fish in-place of shoyu sauce, and it is customary to avoid using shoyu, what most people use in the west, the equivalent of salt.
Now think of sequences in eating and in traditional sushi sequence is as important as anything else. When we eat sushi, we have a beginning, a middle and an end and why? For a very good reason, we start with shirome, (white fish) and move to cockles (texture) and as the meal is divided into sequences and time, we are taken on a culinary journey, ending in warm, sweet or crunchy. And in any Japanese meal foods are usually timed; rice, pickles, and soup are served at the end. In sushi, anago, a sea eel is traditionally served at the end of the meal, and in some cases, tamago, or shiso leaf with ume (plum) and chrysanthemum leaf are wrapped in crisp seaweed.
But even if the sequence is important, we cannot always define why, it has some meaning developed either over time, habit or tradition. Whether or not you agree, this has been working for centuries and everything comes from somewhere: https://mesubim.com/2015/09/17/mesubim-test-kitchen-video-part-ii/
I continue to ask myself why is sushi so popular, and it is mostly texture, warm-cold, sweet or crunchy, most people miss the fact that most fish do not have much taste. Sushi lovers in the west love fat, salmon and Hamachi, and simply put, fat has popularized most experiences. It always reminds me of a friend who loved Hamachi and would insist on eating Buri, another sensational fish. If you eat sushi and you are used to salmon, tuna, and Hamachi, beware you are still an amateur.
When it comes to professionals, sushi fish is about the intensity, and often a matter of akami, the red meat in tuna. This indicates the taste of the quality of the tuna fish. I’ve seen on the wee-early hours of the morning master chefs and tasters testing thin slices of akami. They are looking for smooth and consistent flavors, and most importantly texture.
The key to taste is texture and anyone who eats a crunchy apple, or a soft peach understands what I am talking about. The same applies to sushi and most sushi lovers underestimate the importance of texture, timing, and temperature. When we have a hot bowl of soup, we can imagine the moment we enjoyed it, and now think of hot and sour soup, a Chinese delicacy more complex. The sweet and sour soup, the slimy mushrooms, and or in goulash the heavy potatoes, blister your mouth, the importance of texture and temperature show up more and more.
The ginger in sushi is used to clean the palate, the fish that melts in your mouth, the zinging wasabi, rice and fish balance the taste leaving behind the sensational umami essential to all Japanese foods.
That’s why a great chef intuitively knows the right moves (hand-pressure) to prepare great sushi, or it would fall apart in your mouth and lessen the experience.
Next time think about its time, temperature and taste of the food and without texture food wouldn’t be as interesting.