Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Feel the crunch!
The more you think about your favourite foods, the more you learn about yourself. Why, for instance, do I like my dosas made super-crispy – what they call Paper Dosas at Udupi restaurants? What is it that draws me to a good bhelpuri or a puchka? How do I judge the quality of a potato chip?
The short answer is that I seem to value texture, almost on par with flavour. To be specific: I like everything more when it is crisp.
There are cultures that prize texture in food and there are those where it is not so important. The Chinese love texture. The food writer Fuchsia Dunlop says that the “great barrier to outsider appreciation of Chinese food is the Chinese love of textures that others consider revolting: the slimy, slithery, bouncy and rubbery”.
I knew what she means: I have great difficulty appreciating Chinese textures, which means that roughly a third of all ‘authentic Chinese food’ is off-limits to me.
I often feel that scientists don’t appreciate just how much beyond taste, our love of food can go. The traditional view of flavour is that there are four basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. I have never been fully satisfied with this explanation.
How for example do you classify the teekha taste of chilli? (Bitter? Really?) And science has now conceded, after intense prodding from the Japanese, that there is actually a fifth taste: umami. (The taste of soya sauce, basically.)
Scientists base these classifications on the receptors they find on the human tongue. Umami only got a hearty endorsement from the scientific community after umami receptors were discovered on the tongue.
But it is not clear how much our tongue contributes to the entire taste-flavour experience. Not only have scientists found taste receptors elsewhere, we also know that smell (which has nothing to do with the tongue) is a key determinant in how we perceive foods. Some experts are coming around to recognising that the nose may be as important as the tongue.
Harold McGee, the science-of-food guy whose work became influential after chefs like Heston Blumenthal quoted it, is now focusing on smell rather than just taste. His new book Nose Dive is about smell. (It’s heavy-going but worth it for nerds like me.)
And what about the tastes that we recognise immediately but find little regard for in science? We know that butter makes everything tastier. A lean Florentine steak is improved when you pour olive oil on it. The point of Wagyu is the fat. So is fat a primary taste? Scientists don’t agree.
As for texture, even wine writers have moved away from all that nonsense about how wine can taste of leather and flint. (Have they tasted leather?) All too often these are scent descriptors not taste attributes. Wine wonks accept now that texture is often the key to how we appreciate wine. Except that they don’t call it texture. They call it ‘mouth-feel’, a term that food writers have also discovered.
So why we love the food and drink we do, is more complex than any stuff about primary tastes. It goes far beyond taste receptors.
I know that for me – and I think for many others – texture is what makes food complete. Why do I like nuts in my chocolate? It isn’t because of some sophisticated flavour combination. I just like the crunch. (My favourite chocolate, to this day, is Fruit and Nut). Why do Gujaratis like me ask for papad with our dal-bhath. Well, because we think the experience is not complete without something crispy. Why do I so prefer the crisp kanda bhajia of Maharashtra to the flabby pakoras of the North? Because the bhajia has a better texture than the pakora. So it is with the crisp little samosas of Gujarat (Bohri samosas, for instance) over the doughy chaiwallah samosas of UP.
Chaat, for instance, is all about crispiness. Why does a chaatwallah fry his aloo tikkis once again before serving them to you? It is only partly to make them hot. His main intention is to crisp them so that they can stand up to the dahi, the chutneys and the channa.
Let’s take the puchka/golgappa/batasha/pani puri. Imagine that you took the same flavours (paani, chutneys, aloo, saunth, sprouts or whatever) and put them together with a normal wheat puri. I can guarantee that the dish will fail. It works only because the golgappa puri is fried till it is crisp.
No texture; no pani puri.
So it is with papri chaat. It works because of the crispness of the papri. Or take what I consider to be the greatest triumph of Gujarati food: bhelpuri. The dish is all about texture. The reason it is irresistible is because so many different textures (many of them crisp) exist in perfect harmony with each other: sev, raw onion, boiled potato, mumra, bits of puri, etc.
Often we unconsciously prefer crisp textures without realising it. Do chocolate and vanilla ice cream go well together? Probably. But are they an irresistible combination? No, not unless you turn the chocolate into a thin, crisp covering and put it on top of the vanilla ice cream. That’s how you get a chocobar or a Magnum. Both are iconic ice creams. (My current addiction is the chocobar variation from Brooklyn Creamery, which has half the fat of a normal bar and no added sugar.)
Or take the French fry. Why are most Indian French fries such crap? Well, it’s because of the potatoes we use which never crisp up nicely either because of the sugar content or because they are from potato breeds that are useless for frying.
At most restaurants and fast food outlets now, the fries you get will be cooked from frozen packets and the potatoes will either be imported or grown specially for fries by a food giant like McCain.
People in the food business realise that texture is often as important (if not more important) for a fry than flavour. You can buy fries with such names as Stealth Fries that have been coated with a potato starch mixture that makes the fry crispier and helps it retain that crispiness for longer.
Many of our preferences for food with a crispy texture are unconscious and emerge out of our childhoods and ethnic backgrounds. My mother was a vegetarian when she went to America in the 1940s, as a young student. In those days vegetarianism was largely unknown at US universities, so she taught herself to eat meat. Her favourite food, when she returned to Ahmedabad, was bacon.
Everyone was horrified. How could a vegetarian suddenly become a bacon-lover? Well, she said, she liked it cooked to a crisp. And then, she said, it reminded her of supari. It was the texture that had hooked her more than the flavour.
I have since decided that maybe my mother was ahead of her time. My formerly-vegetarian wife also likes everything crisp. (In all foods: she nibbles on the crisp borders of aloo-tikkis too!) Recently, when we were faced with a really dire Indian-Chinese meal, the only things she ate were the Golden Fried Prawns. (She liked the crisp texture.)
American scientists have researched crispness and found strange things. For example, people enjoyed a crisp potato chip less when you blocked their ears and they couldn’t hear the sound of the crisp cracking in their mouths.
So taste is not just about the tongue or even the nose. The ears and the eyes also play a role. Serve the same dish as an ugly mess and people will like it less than they do when it comes beautifully presented.
Yes, taste and flavour are complicated. But I follow the Golden Rule: Crispness is the key!
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, February 21, 2021
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