The Asian Palette is receptive to other sensations besides the basic four sweet-sour-salt-bitter ones. Ever so often we describe foods by how soft or silky the texture is. The Asian Palette may be different to, say the Western Caucasian Palette in its sensitivity and capacity for the various sensations shown in the box beneath. Even within South East Asia, the chefs in Singapore say they have to adapt regional food (less salt, less oil etc.) to the Singaporean’s palette.
The X in the box indicates what we believe are Asian tastes compared to the Western (O). Asians generally do not like acidic wines and are critical of a wine’s texture – that is; tannic wines are generally not considered to be good whilst a wine that is smooth is appreciated. Conversely, the Western palate is not as accommodating of spicy sensations but the Asian food lover might find most food bland unless there is chilli in the food.
X = Asian tastes O = Western tastes
THE FIFTH TASTE SENSATION – THE UMAMI
Perhaps Japanese gastronomy best explains why mushroom epicureans abound. The Japanese who have extended the description of four taste sensations of sweet, sour, salty and bitter to include a fifth, claim that mushrooms are so enticing because of that very fifth sensation that mushrooms confer in the mouth – umami. It was Japanese researcher Ikeda in 1908 identified the taste in laminaria Japonica seaweed, used as a component of soup stocks in Japanese cuisine, and found that it was associated with glutamate (monosodium L-glutamic acid). Later, ribonucleotides were discovered as having umami taste and also having a synergistic effect with glutamates that greatly enhance the perception of the umami taste.
‘Umami’ is that special combination of flavour that cannot be defined yet comes across as a mouth-‘wateringness’ or ‘savouriness’ in food that distinguishes a superior dish from a mediocre one. Call umami the soul of the food if you wish. In Chinese cuisine, umami is no different to the bandied phrase ‘the breadth of the wok’ – often used to justify the inexplicable fact that the same dish, prepared with exactly the same ingredients but cooked by different chefs, can taste so disparate. Take note that the umami taste in food can have an effect on taste elements of a wine that is served with it, bringing out bitter and often metallic tastes. However, the reaction between umami and wine can be negated by salting the food. No wonder soya sauced / fermented bean / Chinese mushroom dishes take to red wine like fish to water. In that sense, the steamed fish cooked a la Cantonese, with ginger, scanlions and mushrooms will take to red wine because the mushroom acts as a ‘bridge ingredient’.