Sweet, salty, sour, spicy or cool: Cultural variations of basic tastes

iStock

Have you ever had one of those moments where you are faced with a refrigerator filled with half-empty bottles and jars of the world's condiments? The Chinese black vinegar that you needed for the noodle recipe back in 1997 or the tamarind for the homemade chutney vintage 2005. What do you do with these leftovers? According to chef Susan Feniger, author of Susan Feniger's Street Food, you need to organize them into tastes.

Sally Swift: This book is very much a hands-on cookbook, but it's also a book about travel. How integrated is food with travel for you?

Susan Feniger: Completely. I took my first trip to India 30 years ago. Honestly, I think it changed my whole perception about food, about the direction that I was most passionate about. I don't think I realized it at the time, but it has influenced everything in terms of colors I love, my palate and the flavor profile that I am drawn to. It really set the tone for the next 30 years for me.

SS: The book certainly represents that. You have somehow managed in this book to organize the world's kitchens by their ingredients and their flavors, which I think is just brilliant.

SF: One of the common threads that I think I see in every cuisine is this use of different ingredients and their flavor profiles.

The Salts

SF: So for example the salts: Even if you say, "Okay, in the French kitchen there are capers and anchovies, those are the salty elements," there are many elements.

Then you go into Southeast Asia and you have dried shrimp, miso, fish sauce, tamari, soy sauce, those kinds of things.

Then you go where there are brines.

Or you go into Mexico, for example, and achiote from the annatto seed has a little bit of that saltiness. It makes the other part of the dish come up, it's almost like it forces it to step up.

SS: Those are all cultural variations.

SF: Yes, it's like the checkmark of an ingredient list that I really think brings everything in line.

The Sours

SF: In the sours we lay out the categories of pickles and vinegars: umeboshi plums, rose hips, tamarind, hibiscus, yuzu, fermented grains, wines.

Adding sour to a rich dish makes that dish come about. For example, the Malaysian black pepper clams we put in oyster sauce and soy sauce -- that's extremely rich and salty. Add into that tons of fresh lime juice, all of a sudden it totally changes the whole dish.

SS: It's all about the balance.

SF: It is. On a Cubano sandwich -- a great sandwich loaded with all this roast pork and ham, really delicious flavors, mayonnaise and mustard -- what makes that dish are the pickles that you put in there. That sandwich without the pickles is not a great sandwich. It can't be a little, it's got to be every bite that you get.

Even on the pizza or the flatbread, we might make an Italian parsley salad just tossed with a little bit of lemon and olive oil. That then gets laid over the whole pizza when it comes out so that every bite has just a little bit of lemon.

The Sweets

SS: At the other end of things, you have a list of your sweets: palm sugar, maple syrup, sorghum, molasses, dates, blossom waters, honey, dried fruits. Onion you consider sweet -- I assume it's because you caramelize it and it becomes sweet when you cook it.

SF: Yes. The onion has almost more sugar than any other vegetable. In the Thai kitchen shallots are cooked until they are crispy. The reason for that is because they're adding natural sweetness to a dish.

In India you'll see all over chutneys that have tamarind, which is the sour, but then they are sweetened with either dates or raisins. It is sweet but it's also sour and it might have heat.

We as Americans are so sweet. Our palate is so used to sweetness. But I think we're limited in that we haven't explored as much as other countries where you start to use this sweetness from other ingredients where it becomes a really big part -- like date syrup. We do a date and carob syrup over our lamb meatballs in the new book. We do these lamb meatballs -- they're great -- but boy, you add that date carob syrup with the feta cheese sprinkled around that.

SS: Totally irresistible.

SF: Yes, sweet syrup and salty cheese. It's the sweet-salty-acid thing I just love.

<br />
Lamb Meatballs with Date and Carob Molasses
Feniger's recipe: Lamb Meatballs with Date and Carob Molasses

The Hot and Spicy

SS: To round out this pantry, you divide the last two categories into the hot and spicy, which I think everyone can wrap their heads around. It includes mustards and cinnamon. Why is cinnamon there?

SF: Cinnamon, even though it's sweet, there is something about it that actually is a little bit of a kick like ginger. The same thing I think with black cardamom. It's not hot, but it definitely is spicy.

The Mellowers and Coolers

SS: You finish up with mellowers and coolers, which I guess every cuisine needs.

SF: No question. The thing that we're most familiar with is the yogurt, this very wonderful cooler -- a yogurt sauce known as raita is made in all these different ways.

In the Latin kitchen you have the same thing. You might have a spicy salsa, but often times it's finished with crema, which can also be a cooler, or combinations with avocados I think add that same thing. Avocado adds richness, but it also adds a cooling element -- because of its mellowness, it mellows out a dish. It totally does.

In the French kitchen, you have a typical red wine reduction -- in a beurre rouge, the butter mellows that out. Or you have a madeira sauce -- you whip butter into the sauce and that mellows it out. You fold in a little bit of cold butter and wow, it changes the whole texture, flavor and mellowness of the sauce.

Featured recipe

Top Recipes

Featured recipe