Unpacking Flavour

Eleven Madison Park, a three star Michelin restaurant in New York recently announced that it is going vegan. Various broadsheets ran pieces on the news, lauding the innovation and debating what this means for the rest of us. Will there be a trickle down effect from the most influential restaurant in the US to other restaurants? Will this impact what we cook and eat at home? Can this restaurant help us to save the planet by nudging us into more environmentally friendly eating habits?

There have of course been the usual predicable questions of whether or not a meat-free, vegetable-focussed menu can cut it. (Only one other meat-free restaurant holds three Michelin stars, two others hold a star or two). Meat-free food can be seen as difficult and complicated, which is surely exactly where a Michelin-starred chef might come in… High end restaurants tend to prepare food in complicated and time consuming ways anyway. Joel Rebuchon’s perfect mashed potatoes take two hours, and a lot of butter to make. Daniel Hamm, of the aforementioned Eleven Madison Park, spends sixteen hours and uses multiple processes to create a beetroot that is ‘smoky and sweet and acidic and earthy… (with) a rich creamy texture alongside a hint of crunch’ (Davidson, 2021). This sort of faff filters down to the home cook via fancy recipe books – think of Ottolenghi’s three hour roasted celeriac, basted with olive oil and rubbed with crushed coriander seeds.

Michelin-starred restaurants and Ottolenghi aside, I’m more interested in the mundane, the every day, the food around us from which people form ideas and preconceptions. It seems that much of what we like is linked to the pleasure or reward centres in our brains and how they are stimulated by, and respond, to different tastes. There are five recognized tastes – sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami, but fatty and starchy are increasingly thought to be flavours in their own right. Let’s start with sugar. Touted as an evil by Professor Robert Lustig, sugar is held responsible for increasing levels of obesity and diabetes across the world and giving it up is now almost fashionable. I have unwittingly found myself almongst the sugar giver-uppers (the majority of the time), thanks to my terrifying dentist. I have been struck by how sugar is to be found in nearly every sauce, chutney, dip and condiment although I must say, I have never been a big fan of sugary sauces and don’t quite get their popularity.

British food has traditionally been quite savoury, with gravy being a savoury sauce, but the British seem to welcome, with open arms, opportunities to eat food in sugary sauce, to the extent that cuisines are adapted to facilitate an enthusiasm for sugary sauce. (It was a tin of Campbell’s tomato soup mixed with cream and spices that was added to a kebab to make chicken tikki masala.) Jarred sauces can be a quick and easy way of creating certain flavours and dishes at home and they usually contain high levels of sugar, with one well known brand of Hoisin marinade containing nearly 34 grams of sugar per 100ml of sauce!

The burger is one of America’s most successful exports. It is usually served with a sugary, vinegary sauce and accompanied with chips to be dipped in another sweet, vinegary sauce.  They’ve also gotten sweeter: burgers are now served in sweet brioche buns. You can even get doughnut burgers but I appreciate these are a novelty. (On the note of sweetened bread, the Irish government recently refused to classify one of Subway’s bread varieties as bread, due to it’s high sugar content.) Men talk to me about pancakes with bacon and maple syrup. Fried chicken is served with waffles and maple syrup. (I tried a halloumi version once and was baffled as to why I was pouring maple syrup over a savoury lunch.) Barbeque restaurants trading on their lengthy and often secret marinades (which are usually full of sugar) have a sort of cult status.

According to Professor Barry Smith, the founder of the University of London’s Centre for the Study of the Senses, sugar can be mistaken for a savoury flavour, which perhaps partly explains the popularity of these sweetened dishes. Sugar added to a dish can balance out the taste of salt and spices along with bitter and sour flavours. While the eater may not be aware of the sugar levels , they experience the sort of ‘sugar rush’ you might get from a chocolate bar (Parkinson, 2016).

Beyond the sugar rush, does fat come into people’s enthusiasm for meat in a sugary sauce? Having seen him on a Horizon documentary, feeding cheesecake to rats, I read about Dr Paul Kenny, an Irish academic.  He researches the powerful effect on the brain of sugar and fat. The rats were fed foods that humans enjoy but eat too much of; items which contain high levels of fat and provide a dopamine hit to the brain. Kenny gave his rats chocolate cake, bacon and sausages but it was the Sara Lee cheesecake that had them hooked. While the men who feel the need to wang on about bacon to me are not cheesecake-addicted rats, the double whammy of dopamine from both meat and sugar seems to go some way to explaining the popularity of the combination.

Salt, like sugar is ‘hidden’ in much of the food we eat. The 1980s saw a marked effort to reduce the amount of fat we ate. Salt and sugar, already acting in a preservative capacity in processed foods, were widely increased to compensate for any flavour loss in lower fat products. Further more, they may be added to mask the unpleasant taste of some of the products or chemicals used in ultraprocessed foods. While we do need some salt in our diets (about 0.5g per day), the NHS recommends we have no more than 5g per day. Most us eat about 8g each day, often due to the presence of it in products like bread and sauces. Too much salt causes high blood pressure but it seems we are designed to crave it. Dr Matthew Bailey explained in his Edinburgh University TED talk how salt hits the pleasure centres in our brains. Just like sugar….

Moving on to umami, it is the fifth taste, a full-bodied, savoury taste often described as ‘meaty’. Translated from Japanese, umami means ‘deliciousness’. It was identified in 1908 by a Japanese chemist who, struck by the flavour of the seaweed broth he was eating, identified the amino acid glutamate in it. It has become a major food additive, used in the US since the 1920s. Thanks to the widespread use of MSG, we might associate umami with artificial, processed foods (it can be found in Heinz and Campbell products). Research has shown that ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’, attributed to MSG, is in fact largely a product of racism and xenophobia (Barry-Jester, 2016). An episode of Radio 4’s The Food Programme discussed how people raise concerns about MSG added to food in Chinese restaurants but conveniently ignore their Pringle addictions. It seems that MSG is the reason that once you pop, you can’t stop. 

Umami is found in a variety of different foods, whether naturally occuring or processed, cheap or expensive. These include mushrooms, soy sauce, vinegar, tomatoes (especially the sundried variety), cheese (notably parmesan), marmite, miso and seaweed. (Interestingly, many of these items are also high in salt.) The concept of umami forms the basis of Japanese cuisine, which is about balance. It seeks to balance ingredients and to maintain an equilibrium between the body and its external environment. Umami food should leave you feeling good and be kind to the body. Adam Fleischman, a chef who tried to develop a New York umami, views the Japanese concept of umami as far more evolved and far more zen than umami found in the US, where people eat chicken, pizza and burgers. Japanese cuisine, on the other hand, focuses on simplicity and extracting flavour and creating a state of harmony in the dish.

Reading about the principles of Japanese cuisine makes me think of the bhakti or sattvic diet I grew up eating. It is viewed as being conducive to the practice of religion, putting one in a suitable state of mind to worship the Lord (Achaya, 2002). Based on humoral theory, Ayurveda recommeds the body is kept in a state of balance with the external environment, including the seasons, the climate and a person’s occupation. It has six tastes or rasas: pungent, acidic, bitter, sweet, salty and astringent. Pungent, acidic and salty flavours are seen to heat the body and sweet, bitter or astringent flavours to cool the body. Providing all six tastes and a mixture of heating and cooling flavours has informed Indian cooking and food conventions, for example the use of yoghurt, tamarind and kerala or bitter melon.  Collingham (2006) claims that sattvic food is meant to be light, nutritious and easily digestible but this is arguably not an accurate description of much Indian food….

I’m aware how odd a sattvic diet might sound to people as it excludes not only meat and fish but also eggs, onions, mushrooms, garlic and vinegar. Interestingly, some Buddhists follow a diet similar to the sattvic one. Perhaps you have seen the episode of the Netflix series Chef’s Table about a female Buddhist monk named Jeong Kwan who was flown to New York to impress the city’s food experts with her cooking.

There are many examples across the world of religious diet restrictions which have produced innovation and food cultures, perhaps most notably Jewish Kosher cuisines. Levantine, Ethiopian and Greek cuisine stem from Orthodox Christian fasting traditions. In England, fish and chips were traditionally eaten on a Friday due to the Catholic practice of avoiding meat on Fridays. Collingham (2006) refers to the refined tradition of sattvic Vaishnava cuisine: examples include those of the Udupi Krishna temple in the coastal state of Karnataka, and the Jaganatha Puri temple in the eastern state of Orissa. (If you are interested, Shoba Narayan wrote an entire book about temple cuisines and the prasad, or food that is cooked and served to visitors.)

I think it would be fair to say that umami was not the main feature of what we ate at the temple but carbohydrates and fat featured heavily. Research suggests that fatty and starchy could be tastes in their own right. With regards to carbohydrates, it was assumed that we tasted them as sugars, as our saliva breaks carbohydrates break down into simple sugars. However when given a compound that blocked the sweet receptors on the tongue, volunteers were still able to detect a taste described as like rice, bread or pasta. In an article for New Scientist, Juyun Lim, based at Oregan State University, states that the five existing tastes miss out a major component of the human diet. “Every culture has a major source of complex carbohydrate. The idea that we can’t taste what we’re eating doesn’t make sense,” she says. (This pleasingly sheds some light on what I call the pasta dichotomy. Having gathered a list of reasons over the years  as to why people percieve meat-free dishes as lacking, [boring, not sufficiently protein-focused, lacking desired texture], I had asssumed they were talking about the Italian carbohydrates found on so many menus. Simple pasta dishes, I am reliably informed, are on menus as they sell well, not to troll or gaslight me. It seems carbohydrates hit a spot.)

It had been assumed that our ‘perception of fat was based on textural cues and its role as a carrier for flavor (sic) in foods, rather than any explicit lingually perceived “taste.”’ (Tapper & Keller, 2011) but it seems that fat can be tasted. I suppose I viewed adding fat and frying as almost magical ways of making anything taste good, and indeed to turn anything healthy into something fattening and unhealthy. Deep frying was a key feature of temple kitchens but the items made required care, skill and practice. The use of frying in Indian cooking is more extensive and more refined than its use in British food, where deep frying has rather humble roots. Think of chip, kebab and chicken shops where the students, school kids and people on the way home from the pub buy cheap food. (I appreciate this glosses over where these foods came from or how they have changed since arriving in the UK.) Fried food can almost serve as a symbol of socio-economic disadvantage and associated health inequalities – think of crispy pizza, battered and deep fried, served to school children in Glasgow.

Interestingly the British aren’t traditionally terribly interested in a lot of deep-fried Indian fair. The myriad savoury snacks has largely been reduced to onion bhajis and filo pastry samosas served in restaurants. It wasn’t unusual for nearly everything to be deep fried in the temple kitchens on a Sunday, with frying a key feature for a main course, unlike its primary use for sides or accompaniments in a lot of Western food. Veg for two or three different subjis would be deep fried, as were paneer or kofta dumplings, before being added to respectives chaunks and sauces. (These sauces were always savoury, rather than being sweetened. I wonder about this – my ambivalence towards strong umami flavours and simultaneous objection to sweet sauces…)

Indian food is often associated with chili but I am a white woman who grew up eating a version of Indian food, cooked mostly by other white people, with a much toned-down use of chili. My mum once hid the chilis from the resident Indian cook at the temple, due to his refusal to reduce the chili in the prasadam. Chili is however not a flavour or a taste – it is in fact the sensation of pain. (You can read more about chili here.) As someone who uses lots of spices (and some chili) in their cooking, I want to know more about food that isn’t so reliant on umami as it’s selling point. And so, I was intrigued to learn that Indian food, specifically its use of spices, turns most ideas about flavour pairings, and what ingredients go well together, on their head.

In partnership with Francois Benzi, a perfume maker, Heston Blumenthal researched the idea of flavour pairings. Taste and smell are caused by volatile compounds in food which are detected by the nose and tongue (Gaffney). Foods that share flavour molecules go well together, for example poached peaches and raspberry sauce. Heston however explored unusual pairings (like caviar and white chocolate) which would seem to be diametrically opposed, but share similar trimethylamines (Lersch, 2010) so work well together. Chefs began to explore the new world of possible flavour combinations using databases such as foodpairings.com and IBM even got a computer to write a cookbook. (We bought said cookbook and a pizza was made with feta and blackberries on it. It was declared a success.)

”The food pairing hypothesis holds in Western Europe and North America. But in Southern Europe and East Asia a converse principle of anti-pairing seems to be at work’ (Ahnet al, 2011). And on this note. a 2015 study by three Indian academics analysed 3330 Indian recipes using 588 ingredients and found that seven of the eight regional cuisines rely on negative pairings, with positively paired ingredients being used relatively rarely. (Jain, K R &Bagler, 2015). To add some context to this, green pepper, cayenne and garam masala, tend to pair negatively with most ingredients. (Chili paneer with green pepper is a favourite for dinner in our house.)

The use of spices in cooking tends to give a high incidence of negative flavour pairings in a dish. The authors of the study link the use of spices in Indian cuisines to Ayurveda and it’s approach to treating diseases, commenting that  ‘historically spices have served several purposes such as coloring and flavoring agents, preservatives and additives. They also serve as anti-oxidants, anti-inflammatory, chemopreventive, antimutagenic and detoxifying agents and antimicrobial preservation of food. (Jain, K R &Bagler, 2015).

Interestingly, Mughlai cuisine was found to be the exception among Indian regional cuisines, using more positive pairings. Mughlai cuisine is also closest to the food served in Indian restaurants in the UK, so beloved by the British. One aspect of Mughlai food is the use of dairy, specifically cream. Dairy is seen as a ‘quiet’ ingredient and pairs positively with most things. This perhaps explains the popularity of creamy, buttery sauces in high street curry houses, if the British palate is accustomed to positive pairings.

And there we have it. I must say I have learnt a lot putting this together. I had no idea that sugar, salt and fat have such powerful effects on our brains and I found it really interesting to learn about flavour pairings in Indian food compared to Western ideas of cooking. As you may have noticed, I often fail to square ideas as to how what I eat might be lacking. I wanted to look at some of the more scientific aspects of what makes food appealling and I found more than I imagined, looking beyond Eurocentric ideas of flavour. It seems that the answer lies in negative flavour pairings. Who would have guessed?

As for Eleven Madison Park, let’s see what one of America’s most renowned chefs can deliver to appease the sceptics. Most of all, I hope that I won’t have to read another stupid article suggesting that a meat-free meal might be ‘a giant joyless plate of vegetables that physically fills your stomach but never leaves you feeling satiated’ (Davidson, 2021). (What does a giant plate of vegetables look like in a nice restaurant anyway? Probably a selection of antipasti, with things like griddled artichokes and beautifully made bread. You know there would be endless wanging on about the beautiful simplicity, the quality produce, some fetishising of the expensive imported olive oil and balsamic vinegar. And I suspect the chef might hit your over the head with the tasteful platter or wooden board it came on if you described it as joyless.)  How does a writer for the Wall Street Journal, or indeed anyone with any knowledge about food and cooking, come out with such context-free b*llocks, endlessly recycling this attachment to the idea of rabbit food, ignoring normal dishes? And anyway, everyone knows that meat-free restaurant options are almost always Italian carbs. I listened to an episode of the Food Chain where the chef Dan Barber enthused about an eighty dollar spaghetti napoli from Alain Ducasse’s three Michelin-starred Plaza Athénée so I think we should Mr Hamm some credit as to what he can do. Mr Hamm, we wish you the very best with your meat-free menu.


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