January 24, 2011

9 Min Read
Balancing Heat and Flavor

By Joseph Antonio, Contributing Editor

During a recent culinary visit to Oaxaca, Mexico, I experienced a part of Mexican culture and cuisine that helped me gain a deeper understanding of how distinct ingredients, particularly chiles, help define a regions food culture. Just seeing the plethora of chiles that go into the many different moles, for example, was awe-inspiring from a chefs perspective. Each of those chiles has characteristics that can add layers of complexity to a dish.

Chiles, as well as other pungent ingredients like ginger, horseradish, wasabi, mustard and peppercorns, can either play the leading role in a foods performance or serve an important part of the supporting cast. Certain chemical compounds in chile peppers, peppercorns, ginger, galangal, wasabi, horseradish and mustard seeds, such as capsaicin, piperine, gingerol and allyl isothiocyanate, affect the senses to give the characteristic spice" or heat." Those trigeminal flavors can be accentuated by adding other strong, complementary flavor profiles, or subdued by contrasting, elements. Balancing those heat-imbuing components with other flavors, such as those from fruits, nuts, spices and seasonings, and other vegetables, can lead to some truly inspired creations.

Chile connections

Chiles are used in many cuisines from Southeast Asia to Latin America to Europe. Chiles placental walls contain capsaicin, which contributes the burning sensation. Each chile, whether fresh or dried, also contributes its own distinct flavor.

There are chile peppers of all shapes, sizes and forms. They come in all heat levels, from a mild bell pepper to a fiery bhut jolokia, or ghost chile." Chiles come in many forms the chef and product developer can use: fresh, dried, pickled and fermented, to name a few.

Combining certain chiles, such as the serrano or de arbol chiles, with roasted tomatoes or tomatillos and spices to make a salsa adds vibrancy to cooked meats. Using fresh chiles, such as jalapeños, serranos, habaneros and guerros (a moderately spicy chile), in a salsa complements lighter proteins like fish, shrimp and chicken. In conjunction with acidic elements like tomatillos and/or lime juice, they tend to brighten the flavors of foods. Dried, red chiles, like guajillo, California and ancho, often used in marinades and stews, go well with heartier proteins, such as beef, lamb and pork.

Eating a Mexican street taco filled with only pastor pork and topped with cilantro and onion is rather pedestrian without the bold addition of a salsa taquera made with toasted de arbol chiles, roasted tomatillos, garlic, onions and spices. Local taquerías always provide a jar or bottle of homemade salsa roja made with dried de arbol or fresh habanero chiles mixed with tomatoes, garlic and onions to accent a carne asada burrito.

In any one of the famous seven moles of Oaxaca, several chiles are used to develop the complex flavor of the sauce. For example, in the famous mole negro, different chiles contribute depth of flavors and complement the other ingredients. Chilhuacle negro chiles, which have fruity, licorice notes, work off of the cloves and canela (Mexican cinnamon). Guajillo chiles, with their earthy, sharp, berry flavor, meld well with the freshly roasted tomatillos. Ancho, with sweet, raisin-like overtones, and pasilla negro, with its deep, dark, fruity notes, go well with the raisins, pecans, almonds and pepitas in the sauce. Mulatos, with their cherry and tobacco notes, play off the flavor of the Mexican chocolate. The chile combinations used and method of preparation, along with the up to 20 or more other ingredients, creates a wonderful sauce that has a unique flavor without one single ingredient standing out.

Ginger accents

Ginger, a rhizome, is common to South Asia, but has made its way to other parts of Asia, Europe and the Americas. The compound gingerol is what gives ginger its bite." Ginger is often used in Southeast Asia in conjunction with other pungent spices, like chiles, galangal, garlic, shallots, peppercorns and fish sauce, to make curries and spice blends in dishes like massaman nuea (beef curry) and gaeng garee gai (chicken curry).

Ginger can also be used in beverages such as ginger ale, ginger tea and ginger beer. Pickled ginger is used as a palate cleanser when eating sushi. Western cultures often use ginger in sweet applications. Mixed with clove, cinnamon, allspice, mace and nutmeg, it makes an aromatic spice blend for pumpkin pies, cookies, cakes, etc. The sweetness of these aromatic spices tempers the pungency of the ginger.

Thai, as well as other Southeast Asian cuisines, include ginger and chiles in many dishes. Balancing the pungent flavors of chiles, ginger and galangal in a curry with coconut milk and Thai basil in a beef panang creates contrasting sweetness and cools the overall flavor profile.

In the Szechuan province of China, chiles such as cháo tian jiao, or heaven-facing chiles, and Szechuan peppercorns are used in dishes like kung pao chicken and mapo tofu. Each uses liberal amounts of the two ingredients. The lemony notes and numbing effects of the peppercorns help deliver the heat of the chiles, giving it the typical hot and spicy" profile of Szechuan cuisine.

In the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, pungent ingredients like ginger, garlic, black mustard seeds, and fresh red or green chiles are used with coriander, cumin, black pepper, asafetida, fenugreek, curry leaves and turmeric to make kooras, or curries. They are also in pachadis, vegetable dishes that accompany main dishes, and ooragayas, which are spicy, pickled fruits or vegetables.

One Indian condiment popular in the west is mango chutney, which is made with fresh green mangoes and laal mirchi (dried red chiles) or chile powder. It is commonly paired with mudda pappu (cooked lentils), which helps balance the tanginess and spiciness of the chutney. Another accompaniment used to tame the pungency of curries and chutneys is raita, a yogurt-based condiment served chilled and used as a cooling contrast to dishes like mamsam pulusu (mutton curry) made with ginger, tamarind, fresh green chiles and red chile powder. The fresh, cool, raw and tangy profile of the raita is a complete opposite to the heated, pungent, slow-cooked stewyet remains complementary. Sometimes mint is added to the raita, since it has inherent cooling properties, as well.

Allyl in the family

Wasabi, horseradish and mustard seeds all contain allyl isothiocyanate, which forms a compound that affects mainly the nasal cavity as the vapors rise up to your olfactory receptors. The well-known traditional Japanese condiment, wasabi root, complements the umami characteristics of soy sauce served with sushi and other fish dishes.

Closely related to wasabi is horseradish. It has similar flavor and pungency as wasabi and is often a substitute for real wasabi due to wasabis limited availability in the west. In western cultures, primarily, mustard and green food color is added to horseradish to mimic wasabis characteristics.

Prime-rib roast simply cannot go without a creamy horseradish sauce. Just like wasabi complements the umami taste of soy sauce when served with fish, horseradish pairs well with the meaty, umami taste of beef. Sometimes horseradish is mixed with vinegar to bolster its strength.

Uses of mustard in its prepared form are virtually endless. It pairs particularly well with meats, such as sausages, hot dogs, ribs and other umami-rich foods. It can be mixed with other ingredients to provide a tangy, spicy component to barbecue sauces, salad dressing and marinades. In barbecue sauces, it helps provide the tang" to contrast the sweetness coming from molasses or brown sugar; or complement other pungent spices like cider vinegar, black pepper and garlic. In marinades, the mustard adds acidic notes that have more complexity than vinegar, melding the other flavors together. It has emulsifying properties that make it easier to prepare oil-and-water products, like vinaigrettes and mayonnaise.

The pied piper

Of all the spices that have affected the worlds cuisine, the biggest impact comes from peppercorns. Pepper gets its punch from a chemical called piperine, similar to the effects of eating chiles. All three peppercorns (black, green and white) come from the Piper nigrum plant.

The types of peppercorn vary depending on processing. Black peppercorns are the fruits of the plant that have been dried with the outer skin intact. They are much spicier than the other types, and are more commonly used to flavor dishes. White peppercorns have the outer black layer of the fruit removed. Theyre less spicy than the black, and are typically used in cream sauces or light-colored dishes where their light color blends in better. It is often said that white pepper imparts a flavor reminiscent of old, damp socks. The green variety get their color from a sulfur-dioxide treatment or freeze-drying. The process helps retain the color. The flavor is less pungent than the black or white, with more herbaceous, fruity notes. Green peppercorns are also sometimes pickled.

Pink peppercorns" are the dried fruit of the Brazilian baies rose plant (which means pink pepper" in French). Because of their bright color, pink peppercorns are often mixed with the other three colors of peppers and used in marinades or on top of a steak au poivre, where the peppercorns are the highlight of the dish. When added to any dish, often topical, or mixed into a sauce, pink peppercorns provide a peppery, citrusy, floral and earthy note that complements every flavor profile from sweet to savory.

Not all that long ago, umami was newly touted as the fifth taste among culinarians, along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter. But there has been talk for even a longer period of time, particularly in the Far East, about another element of taste: pungency. Culinary history shows pungent flavors have been integral ingredients in mostif not allof the worlds cuisines. These flavors open up" the senses and allow for other sensory perceptions to become heightened, allowing for a greater experience when enjoying food.

Joseph Antonio is corporate R&D chef for Haliburton International Corporation, Ontario, CA. After receiving his B.A. in Asian American Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, he earned his A.O.S. Culinary Arts degree and Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Certificate from the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, CA. Antonio worked at PMO-Wildwood/Soga Soyfoods Center, Koi Restaurant, ZaZen Restaurant and the New School of Cooking before joining Haliburton. He is a member of the Research Chefs Association. For more information, visit haliburton.net.

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