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Principles of Flavor Harmony

Kasma Loha-unchit, April 19th, 2009

When working with strong flavors, like strong colors, it is important to keep them in balance with other flavors, so that one does not overpower another and cover up the more subtle flavors. Sharp sours, fiery spiciness and cutting bitterness can make peace and share the stage without conflict. Here is where the art of Thai cooking lies: the creation of flavor harmonies that bring together seemingly disparate flavors and integrate them into a unique and magnificent whole.

Fish Sauce, Source for Salty

Fish Sauce, Source for Salty

Your own cooking experience may have already revealed to you that the salty and sweet flavors balance each other. If something is too sweet, add a little salt; if it is too salty, add a little sugar. Taking this a step further, both the sweet and salty flavors balance the sour. For instance, if a dipping sauce is much too sour, determine first whether you can taste the salty flavor. If not, add a little salt (or fish sauce if the recipe uses fish sauce as the salty ingredient).

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Sour (Limey), Spicy & Salty Dressing

Sour (Limey), Spicy & Salty Dressing

When the sauce tastes equally salty and sour, the addition of a little sweet often helps pull these two flavors together, so that they do not stand alone as separate ingredients, but embrace each other as partners. At the same time, this will enable you to taste their distinctive sources, as well as the flavors of other ingredients that may be in the sauce. Therefore, instead of just sour, you may now notice that the sauce is limy, garlicky if there is garlic in it, and may even taste hotter than before since you are better able to taste the flavor of the chillies swimming in it. The sweet flavor, on the other hand, is also known to mellow out the heat of chillies, but usually, it tightens flavors first until you are able to taste a very faint sweetness in the back of your tongue. The harmony of the sauce peaks at this point and any further additions of sugar mellows out the heat as well as the sour and salty flavors.

Thai Chillies, for Spicy

When working with strong sour, salty and hot flavors, the sweet flavor serves an important balancing function. It harmonizes the disparate flavors, pulling them together into a whole greater than the sum of its parts, and opens up doorways for your taste buds to taste the multi-dimensional flavors of all the ingredients in the dish. The fresh bouquet of aromatic herbs, unique textural taste of vegetables, and the delicately sweet and luscious flavors of fresh seafood come through the strongly flavored sauce to the foreground and are not smothered by it. At the same time, the bitterness of pungent roots and roasted spices takes a seat in the background, adding its own virtues like bass in an orchestra.

Steamed Fish, Sour & Hot

Steamed Fish, Sour & Hot

Strong sour flavors, especially, benefit greatly from the balancing role of sweet. Frequently, a significant amount of sugar is required in order to bring about this balance. Just a small pinch may have little effect, and sometimes may even muddy up the waters – as if it has not yet convinced the strong players to cooperate. Keep adding a little more sugar until the faintest sweetness is noticeable in the back of your tongue. At this point, sugar is no longer needed as a peacemaker, but comes to the fore for its own sake, to be an equal player with the rest of the team. Whether or not more sugar should be added depends on whether the sweet component is an important feature of a particular savory dish. Its role varies from dish to dish and on the taste preference of the partakers of the meal.

Shrimp with Sataw, Spicy

Shrimp with Sataw, Spicy

Of course, not all Thai dishes contain all five flavors in their full intensity. Some are actually rather plain and simple, using one or two flavor ingredients; others in-between. The Thai love for variety and harmony is reflected in the balance of dishes in a meal. A typical meal consisting of five dishes would usually have one, or at most two, intensely hot dishes, accompanied by one or two of medium-range spiciness and the remaining mild and bland. If there is a sharply sour salad or soup, the rest of the dishes are not likely to contain the sour flavor to clash with it. If a rich curry is on the menu, the accompanying dishes can be expected to be light and coconut milk will not be used in any of them. And so on. In short, not only should flavors be in harmony within a dish, all the dishes in a meal should be in harmony with one another.

Note: Harmonizing flavors lies at the heart of Thai (or, indeed) any cuisine. Kasma used to emphasize frequent tastings in her Thai cooking classes (she’s now retired) to help teach the principles. You might enjoy Kasma’s articles Creating Harmonies with Primary Flavors and Balancing Flavors: An Exercise.

We have recipes on our website for two of the above dishes, Mom’s Good & Easy Steamed Fish (Bplah Neung) and Stir-Fried Shrimp with Sadtaw or Fava Beans (Gkung Pad Sadtaw).

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, April 2009.

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3 Responses to “Principles of Flavor Harmony”

  1. Robin says:

    That’s useful. I would like apply this to Chinese food. This is my first class of cooking.

  2. Bob hsieh says:

    Peanut butter and jelly with Sirracha? Or Crystal hot sauce?

  3. Khristine says:

    I’d love this taste. “Shrimp with Sataw, Spicy” Sataw Beans (sadtaw), as used in Thai cooking, This spicy stir-fry of sataw and shrimp is one of the most well-known dishes from the South of Thailand.

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