Culinary alchemy and Taste science

Being a former French colony, Cambodia isn’t new to the critical taste buds of sophisticated palates. But even though it’s produced few consistent culinary winners (even at the posh establishments), the little engine that could that is Phnom Penh is nevertheless exploring global epicurean trends. Excellent wine selection and a streaming influx of gourmands and chefs with star experience indicate it’s ready to take on the challenge.

We had a spectacular dessert event last night by one of these chefs, complete with flavour pairings and wine. It’s always interesting to look at food beyond the function of sustenance, and it’s definitely more fun with fellow foodies (otherwise gastro-physics is just another rocket science uninspiring to the average chowhound like me). Now I ramble around topics so bear with me!

First wine. Consider the Euro-centric language of wine discourse: leather component in a malbec, pine on the nose of a cabernet, pepper at the back end in a syrah, etc etc.. It’s greek to the aspiring ‘Asian’ palate, where socialisation of tastes and aromas differ vastly from Western sensibilities. That lack of communication retards the potentially wider appeal of wine. But take this same science of tasting to gastronomy and somehow, emotively, diverse ‘languages’ can better communicate. Why the difficulties with wine when the universal language of food is readily understood?

Now food tasting. Molecular gastronomy, enter stage left. The trend is still too experimental for wide appeal, but it boils down to matching the major chemical components of food or wine (or volatile molecules) with others containing the same compounds, so that when put together they achieve a savoury synergy (ever seen the animation Ratatouille?).

For example, try these pairings in recipes: wasabi with maple, soy sauce and malt, strawberry and coriander– the possibilities are endless (for someone with no talent for creating a tasty meal, consulting the chemistry makes cooking seem almost easy… no?). Network graphs like the one below illustrate how the components of different food products relate to each other, as a tool to inspire the creation of original recipes. (wonder if that’ll help me?!)

Get past the rather dull narration and this video explains it well, using chocolate and asparagus as starting points for pairings:

So back to my dinner. One of the other guests was a chef who created a nice treat for dessert. He put together small bites for each of us, strategically placing discordant taste elements on a spoon to hit the palate at a desired sequence: lychee mousse and reduced coconut cream at the front, espresso gelatin at the back, followed by a sip of De Bortoli Black Noble (Botrytised Semillon). We were also instructed to savour a small taste of each alone in the mouth to accompany a sip of wine. So I found that the lychee and coconut paired extremely well with it, while the coffee was overpowered and receded at the first hint of wine.

The next round was a chocolate cake topped with a dollop of rich chocolate mousse, a caramel stripe, pickled beet in balsamic and honey, beet jelly. (The extraneous elements were also incorporated in the cake.) These were paired with a very good Cabernet Sauvignon, and the routine above was repeated.

The point? To hone the taste buds. Do you know the average person can’t tell apart the fruit flavours in ice cream until they’re prompted? But why bother sharpening your taste buds, you ask and so did I. Purely for the multisensory, sophisticated eating experience (naturally) (or maybe so you can articulate that bite of sweet currant from the merlot)! The proliferation of tasting menus at top restaurants in major cities is testimony to this trend, welcome by both gourmands and foodies alike.

Wine and food are great conversation pieces aren’t they, and in that spirit, here’s a smattering of the foodie chatter for 2009:

Spice pairings for 2009 courtesy of McCormick, the largest spice company in the world:

Cayenne & Tart Cherry
Chinese Five Spice & Artisan-Cured Pork
Dill & Avocado Oil
Garam Masala & Pepitas
Mint & Quinoa
Peppercorn Mélange & Saké
Rosemary & Fruit Preserves
Smoked Paprika & Agave Nectar
Tarragon & Beetroot
Toasted Sesame & Root Beer

Top trends for home cooks and restaurant-goers in 2009 by Epicurious:

“Value” is the new “Sustainable”
The Compost Pile is the new Flower Garden
Peruvian is the new Thai
Noodle Bars are the new Sushi Joints
Ginger is the new Mint
Smoking is the new Frying
Regional Roasters are the new Starbucks
Portland (Maine) is the new Portland (Oregon)
Rustic Food is the new Molecular Gastronomy
“Top-Rated” is the new “Critic’s Pick”

Food: What Not to Miss in 2009 by The Guardian, who sees foodies taking back the day given the present economic climate:

Spending more not less
Reclaiming the steak
Digging the scene
Home, sweet homestead
Re-entering the atmosphere
The unbearable smugness of foodies

The January issue of Bon Apetit puts peanut butter and Peru on the short list for 2009 food trends… mmmmm…!

And this video sums up the functional, less waste, environmentally-minded, budget-conscious foodie trends the hospitality industry expects in the coming year:

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