The sweet side of Miso and Wasabi
In Part 1 of this two-part series, we looked at two desserts and saw how sourness and bitterness can elevate a dessert. This week, we will examine two other desserts which emphasize the role of other tastes in balancing out the sweetness in a dessert.
Salt plays a really vital role in desserts, and the concept of the savoury dessert is fast holding ground. It works because salt does a lot more than impart saltiness to a dish. It helps to bring out the flavours. Think of candied bacon bits, salted caramel, or chocolate coated peanuts. All of them employ a combination of salt and sweet to create something much greater than the sum of its parts.
We tend of think of salt and sugar as the alpha and omega, mentally categorizing dishes as either savoury or sweet. But salt plays a critical role in the pastry kitchen. It pairs well with the richness of caramel, giving it another dimension of complexity. A pinch of salt also elevates a chocolate dessert, toning down some of the bitter astringency and rounding out the flavours. The trick, as always, is to use just enough to awaken the other flavours without making it taste salty.
The Miso Panna Cotta from the Fatty Bao, located just a floor below Monkey Bar in Camac Street, is a very unusual dessert. It comprises a slab of miso panna cotta, a microwave sponge, a pistachio crumble, a miso caramel, tiny caviars of apple jelly and a dollop of meringue on top. For the uninitiated, miso is a Japanese ingredient made by fermenting soybeans. It has a deep salty and savoury flavour and is the basis for a lot of Japanese dishes. It is a very unusual ingredient for a dessert which when used properly, works brilliantly.
The dessert is unbelievably savoury. Of course, the sponge and the jelly are pretty sweet, but the overall dish has a very muted sweetness. It’s there, but in strong interplay with the salt and umami of the miso which at times seems to take over. I loved the dish, although I know it is definitely not to everyone’s taste, which is probably why they’ve removed it from the menu. Nonetheless, it is one of the most unusual desserts I’ve ever had, one that really pushes the limits and goes to show just how well a dessert can straddle both sweet and savoury without leaning heavily towards either. It is the perfect dish for someone who wants dessert but doesn’t have a sweet tooth or commonly, as we did, as a bridge to transition from savoury mains to a more indulgent dessert.
The Aztec tradition of adding chilli and other spices to their hot chocolate is finding new audience. Today we get hot chocolates spiced with chilli, cinnamon and the like. You have chilli truffles, gingerbread cookies and cumin praline. Spices, it seems, are making their way into the pastry kitchen, and to great effect.
This last dessert is undoubtedly one of the best I’ve ever had, which is ironic, because it is much, much simpler than the desserts we’ve seen so far. It was a wasabi ice cream from a small restaurant in the Dharmatala area called the Co. It was many years ago and they’ve changed their menu since, but the memory lingers. Wasabi is yet another Japanese ingredient. It is a condiment botanically similar to horseradish and mustard, traditionally served with sushi. It looks really simple: two generous scoops of ice cream of an unusual shade of green, served in a martini glass. The magic begins when you dig in.
At first, it seems normal: cold, creamy, sweet; a little boring, to be honest. At around the third or fourth spoon you feel something: a slight burn at the back of the throat. You take another spoonful in an attempt to cool things down, and surprisingly, the burn intensifies. Soon, your entire throat is on fire. The lingering, pricking burn now starts to irritate your nostrils and your sinuses open up just a little. You sit stunned a few seconds as the fire slowly dies down and things return to normal again.
The sharp burn of the wasabi and the cool creaminess of the ice cream blend perfectly to create this marvel of a dessert. Of course, wasabi ice creams have become much more common these days, but many fail to strike the perfect balance. They either blow your head off with an overpowering heat or, more commonly, taste like plain vanilla ice-cream. This particular one had the perfect balance between ice and spice. Plus, it was my first time tasting such a mixture of opposites, and it was marvellous.
Use the other tastes to counteract the sweetness in a dessert, and you will create something that tastes more balanced, less one-dimensional, and much more delicious. Plus, in an age where people are becoming more and more health-conscious by the day, it is wise to cut down on the actual sugar content and supplement it with something else which elevates it to another level.