The Ballad of Salt and Sugar
You might not have ever thought of it this way, but eating is one of the very few everyday activities which employs all five senses. Sure, taste, smell and even sight make sense, but what about sound and touch? This week, we begin a 7-part series called Food and the Senses (or FATS, for short) exploring the five senses and how they pertain to food. As Julie Andrews very wisely said: “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” And the first note in the culinary scale is definitely taste.
There are five basic tastes, sensed by receptors called taste buds present on our tongues and all over our mouths including the hard and soft palate. The food needs to be dissolved in the saliva to stimulate the taste buds which carry the information to the brain, which we perceive as taste. Remember that diagram from high school biology textbooks which claimed that some taste buds are better suited for particular tastes, like the tip of the tongue for sweet and the back of the tongue for bitter? Turns out, it was a result of the misinterpretation of a German paper from 1901. In reality, all taste buds are sensitive to all tastes, without any discrimination whatsoever.
Let’s start with salt, the magic powder responsible for the downfall of Carthage and the elevation of any dish you can think of. There is a whole range of salts on offer today, ranging from the plain table salt to unrefined salts like sea salt, black salt and the now trendy Himalayan pink salt, where the minerals impart some other flavours to the salt and, in turn, to the final dish. The sulphury notes of black salt is much sought-after by Indians, who use it liberally.
Crystal size also matters. The French fleur de sel (flowers of salt) is traditionally collected off the coast of Brittany, most notably in the town of Guerande. It has large crystals which makes it the ideal finishing salt (sprinkled on dishes as a garnish). The irregular flakes provide a certain visual appeal and a very slight crunch which imparts a subtle textural element. Most importantly, due to their size, the crystals melt very slowly on the tongue, releasing the salinity in a much slower rate than table salt, so it doesn’t feel as salty when had on its own. It is perfect on steaks and caramels.
Salt can be added to a dish not just as crystals, but in the form of salty ingredients which not only help season a dish, but also adds its own note of flavour. Think of anchovies in a puttanesca, parmesan shavings on a salad or a sprinkling of chaat masala on a fruit chaat. In all of these cases, the ingredients add salt to the dish, but at the same time, they add their own individual flavours to the dish.
On that note, let’s move on to sweet, the universal favourite. We humans are genetically programmed to enjoy sweet food, because in the days of foraging, a sweet fruit tended to be advantageous as sugars are the primary source of energy, a real necessity in those early days of physical hardship. Today, however, the easy availability of sweets coupled with their consumption by the kilo means that all those calories remain unused, especially because our lifestyle has become much more sedentary; and these excess, unused calories get stored in the body as fat. Hello, obesity!
Sweetness in dishes can be obtained most easily from table sugar. Brown sugar, which is basically sugar coated in caramel, has an additional depth of flavour, perfect for your cup of coffee or your next batch of brownies. Unrefined sugars, like jaggery (gur) made from date palm sap, has a whole other level of complexity of flavours apart from just sweetness. It is the rock salt of the sugar world. Nolen gur is made from fresh date palm sap and is used to make numerous desserts very close to the Bengali’s heart. Sweetness can also be obtained from syrups like honey, agave and maple syrup, all of which have their own set of complex flavour elements. Try pouring on a plain sugar syrup the next time you make pancakes and you’ll realise what I’m talking about.
Our minds tend to polarize salt and sugar, and classify dishes as either savoury or sweet. But salt and sugar aren’t quite the alpha and omega that we make them out to be. Several foods employ harmonious balance of salt and sugar, for example. Candied bacon, chocolate coated peanuts, salted caramel…… the list goes on. We’ll take a look at this interplay of salty and sweet in some detail in an upcoming article.
Well, that’s salt and sweet sorted out. Next time, in Part 2 in our series, we’ll look at the other three tastes.