Creating Harmonies with Primary Flavors
by Kasma Loha-unchit
See our Blog entry: Principles of Flavor Harmony
The complexities (and simplicities) of Thai cooking, owing to the wide range of flavor ingredients employed in the cuisine, require a good understanding of the primary categories of flavors that are registered by the taste receptacles on your tongue and how they interact with one another. The blending of these main flavors will affect how you taste the herbs, vegetables, seafoods, meats and other food items in the dishes you make. For most of the world's cuisines, there are four basic tastes: salty, sweet, sour and bitter.
In traditional Oriental medicine, it is believed the human body is made up of five essential elements. Associated with each of them is a category of flavor derived from natural foods. When the five elements are in balance, the body is in good health; when any of them is deficient or excessive, the harmony of the body is disturbed. One way to ensure good health is to include in the diet a balance of natural foods representing the five flavors: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and pungent (or hot). Because Thai cuisine utilizes all five, almost to an equal degree, it may be seen as a health-enhancing cuisine, if one consumes a wide range of Thai foods with rice as the main course and does not selectively indulge in only a few "favorite" dishes, especially the higher-fat curries and fried foods.
By blending the five primary flavors in varying proportions, surprisingly different results can be achieved. Varying their sources, too, will introduce new dimensions, multiplying the number of variables available to you to create a wide range of distinctive tastes. In Thai cuisine, the bitter flavor comes largely from herbs and deep green vegetables; because these ingredients appear in most recipes, the remaining four flavors are the ones you can adjust to obtain the taste balances you desire. When you have developed a good sense of how these flavors interact, you may be able to "rescue" or perk up dishes put together from cookbook recipes that turn out "blah," fall below your expectations or simply taste as if something is missing.
The most common sources of the four variable flavor categories are covered in Kasma's cooking classes and in It Rains Fishes. You will find that certain ingredients in any given category are not mutually exclusive, as many prepared sauces, pastes and dried ingredients impart more than one primary flavor.
Learn how to harmonize flavors in Kasma's Exercise in Balancing Flavors.