Almost everybody likes food with flavor. I say almost, because I have family who do not, and I am sure you have too. It’s difficult to cook for them, no adventure at all, and invariably, they are extremely fussy.
Chili is too hot, cardamom and fenugreek too foreign. Goat meat is too … well goat-like, and warthog too ugly. Unless their chop or steak is scorched to resemble the remnants of a recent veld fire, they would rather eat bread and margarine. And no God of your choice could defend you against their wrath should you serve them black garlic.
Cooking is the pursuit of flavor. Flavor is the sensory impression of food determined by the chemical senses of taste and smell.
Of these two, smell is by far the most important because it is the odor molecules in food that provide most of its distinctive taste.
If you do not believe me, pinch your nose with a washing peg and taste your way through your spice rack. Or wait until you get the flu.
The aroma chemicals in herbs and spices are volatile. They are light enough to evaporate from the original source from where we inhale them with each breath. High heat makes these chemicals even more volatile and thus more recognizable. Which is why you should always fry spices before you use them.
Over time our brains develop sensory patterns. Smells and taste provoke strong memories and associations with people, places, and events, filling them with emotional contents. No wonder home cooking tastes the best, and mom is always the best cook of them all, even if she could only make one dish.
Ironically, the flavorings in herbs and spices are often their defense mechanisms. The potency of these is released when the plant is chewed and the experience is anything but pleasurable. Just try a handful of cardamom seeds or chew a whole vanilla stick. I bet you’ll do it only once and never again.
The potency of herbs and spices needs to be diluted for us to benefit from their flavorings. This is done by adding food, water and heat.
Often the flavor of a specific herb or spice is complex – a combination of several flavors. Think of allspice, the name given by the British to the berries of the Pimenta Dioicaplant because it contains the flavours of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.
Serious chefs go to great lengths to match the flavor compounds of ingredients. Flavor wheels are commonly used in the beer, wine and coffee industry to obtain the ultimate flavor combinations, and for innovative chefs food paring maps are probably an indispensable resource. These maps match food stuffs and ingredients based on the chemical compounds that make up their flavor profiles. For example: if you are looking to match you roast chicken with fruit (perhaps to be used in a salad or sauce), you should go for guava, bitter orange peel or fig. Looking for a seafood starter with the chicken? Try fresh oysters, kelp or clams.
Have you ever heard of black garlic? Take ordinary garlic, place it in a tight container in your oven set to very low heat (60 °C) and let it ferment in the oven for 40 days. This turns the garlic cloves ink black but more importantly changes the flavor to resemble tamarind or balsamic vinegar.
It is commonly known we can taste four components: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. And now the western world has gone dilly over a fifth: savory or umami. Discovered in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese chemist, the umami taste is present in a number of traditional Asian ingredients: seaweed, cured skipjack tuna (bonito or bonito flakes), shiitake mushrooms and the dreaded MSG (which now has been proven to be harmless for most people, but shunned because it represents a cheap, one-dimensional flavor substitute for real food).
More common ingredients that include umami tones are meat and cheese.
Thus, there is more much more to cooking with flavor than adding more ingredients. One needs to understand what to add, and how much of it. Take your ingredients seriously, and look for those surprising elements that tie everything together. For the whole is much bigger than the sum of its parts.