What I Talk About When I Talk About Flavor

“Look, I’m just saying it’s missing something. I don’t know what, but it needs something else.”

The conversation next to my bench had been going on for close to 20 minutes. Our manager had just tried a spoonful of soup that we were going to selling tomorrow. It was a spicy African Peanut soup- dried ancho peppers had been infusing the pot with a smoky flavor, carried on the fat of the peanut butter and oil the veggies had been fried in. There was a suggestion for salt, but the recipe already had a lot.

Black pepper, sage, garlic, more cayenne, it went round and round. The owner looked over the pot and called me over. “Matt, taste this- what do you think it needs?”

I grabbed a spoon and took a taste. Smoke, peanut, and fried veggies washed over my tongue… but no heat. The heat from the anchos needed something to cut through the fat. “It’s good, but dull… you need some kind of acid in there to carry the heat and brighten it up. Got some lemon juice?”

The hot pepper might give the soup bite, but acid gave it jaws to bite with. When you become a cook, you start learning a different vocabulary for flavor, which is itself the vocabulary of food.

Picture of someone in a striped sweater mixing paints on an artist’s pallet.
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