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Balancing Flavors: An Exercise

by Kasma Loha-unchit

Balancing Flavors lies at the heart of Thai cooking, indeed, at the heart of any kind of cooking. This exercise will help you learn the principles of Creating Harmonies with Primary Flavors. Kasma also has a blog entry, Principles of Flavor Harmony.

To demonstrate how balancing the primary flavors can add more to a dish than the sum of its parts, the following is a simple exercise for making a basic hot-and-sour sauce:

  1. Chop two cloves of garlic and five Thai chillies or a large hot jalapeno pepper. Crush together with a mortar and pestle to a paste. Transfer to a small sauce dish.
  2. Add two tablespoons of fish sauce. Stir well. Taste for reference.
  3. Add two tablespoons of freshly squeezed lime juice. Stir and taste. If the sour flavor hits you before the salty, add more fish sauce, and vice versa. Adjust the sauce so that it is equally salty and sour. Note how the sauce tastes overall. (If the sauce is much too hot, tone it down by adding more of both fish sauce and lime juice until it reaches a tolerable level. But remember that you will be serving the sauce with other food and not eating it by itself; therefore, it should be hotter than "to taste.")
  4. Add half a teaspoon of sugar. Stir well to dissolve. Taste. Has a change taken place? What has it done to the flavor of the chillies, garlic, fish sauce and lime juice?
  5. Add another half a teaspoon of sugar, stir and taste. Again, note the changes, if any. Has the sauce started to taste sweet?
  6. Add yet another half a teaspoon of sugar, stir and taste again. Repeat this step until you begin to notice sweetness in the sauce. Note at what point the sauce seems the most intense and lively.
  7. Continue to add sugar until the sauce becomes equally sweet, salty and sour. Note all the changes that take place with each addition.

When we do this exercise in my beginning cooking class, varying reactions occur during the different steps. After the first addition of sugar, students are sometimes divided as to whether they like the sauce better or less. With the second and third additions, excitement begins to emerge. Many of them are surprised how the sauce now tastes not just sour but noticeably more limy; some claim they can taste the flavors of the garlic and chillies better, while others report that the sauce has become hotter and more intense. Usually, the intensity of flavors peaks at the point just before the sweet flavor becomes noticeable. From then on, the addition of more sugar sweetens and mellows.

When I balance flavors, I generally start out with the hot (if it is a spicy dish), then the salty. This is followed by the sour (if it is a sour dish). The sweet flavor is added last to balance. Usually, sweet balances both the sour and salty, and vice versa. For instance, if a dish you made turned out too salty, add a little sugar; likewise, if it is too sweet, add a little more saltiness. Use the sour to balance if the dish can benefit from a tangy flavor. Similarly, saltiness and sourness can be used to balance each other. In desserts or sweet snacks, a little salt can bring out flavors from other ingredients, such as coconut milk, in the same way as a little sugar can bring out the flavor of ingredients in salty dishes.

From this above exercise, you can whip up a number of different sauces to accompany different types of dishes. For instance, you may wish a sweeter sauce for your barbecued chicken and a more intensely hot-and-limy concoction for fried fish. Changing the sources of sour to vinegar or tamarind and of hotness to other types of fresh or dried chillies will add new dimensions to your creations. As you continue to experiment with new and different sources as well as new and different combinations of the four flavor groupings and add to these different types of aromatic and pungent herbs, you will soon find an almost infinite range of possibilities opening up to you. Remember that this process of experimentation can be applied to other areas of cooking besides making sauces.

Copyright © 1995 Kasma Loha-unchit in It Rains Fishes. All rights reserved.

You might enjoy learning how to Cook Thai food from Kasma in a Thai cooking class.

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