The Fifth Sense

Largely because N. and I are big kids (and because we really wanted to watch The Mandalorian), we now have a subscription to Disney+. This is not particularly newsworthy in the food part of my world, except that we opted for a bundle that included hulu which, if you’re not aware, seems to have all back episodes of Top Chef. In preparation for the new season in mid-March, and because I had exhausted many of my other binge-able options, I decided to go all the way back to the beginning.

In one episode during Season Two, Padma Lakshmi tells the contestants that cooking is perhaps the one art form that employs four of the five senses: sight, smell, taste, and touch. In doing so, she is distinguishing it as special. Unless you are in the habit of tasting your oil paints (don’t do this) or crunching on the inhaled marble dust of your sculpture (also inadvisable), taste is a sense not often used for artistic pursuits.

But I think Padma’s evaluation is wrong – or at least it’s incomplete. Yes, we use sight, smell, taste, and touch when we cook. But if we’re doing a good job, we also use our ears. While you can tell a pan of hot fat is ready for the main event by sight, because oil “shimmers” and, if you want to live on the edge, smokes, the easiest determiner of readiness is the sound that slab of meat, or pile of diced onions, or broccoli steak, makes when it touches the fat. Chef and Food Network personality Anne Burrell tells students of cooking that they should hear “rambunctious applause” when food goes into a properly preheated pan. A faint sizzle – or worse, no noise at all – simply means the oil or butter or lard isn’t sufficiently warmed to sear properly. That means we employ our ears as well.

Even when we are preparing food without cooking, hearing plays an important part. I can determine how crisp a leaf of romaine or a slice of cucumber is with my eyes and fingertips. But if I combine taste and sound when I bite through an experimental piece of it, I’m much more informed about how fresh my salad will be, and what kinds of other textures I should add for enjoyable eating.

And more than information, there is pleasure in the sound of food. The sigh of a just-cooked salmon filet when I flake it with a fork. The deliberation of a whisk against a metal bowl as I whip egg whites or cream. The steady thud of my knife on the board while I’m decimating a pile of herbs. When I indulge in a dish of crème brulee, I want to hear the glassy thin sugar crack at the tap of my anxious spoon. When I bite through a pickle, I want to hear a crunch as well as feel it between my teeth. There’s something satisfying about others knowing how much texture it had, and unless I’m keen to share, that can only be truly achieved through the sound it makes. The pop and fizz of a champagne bottle would be much less celebratory if you could only see, not hear, the explosive carbonation.

If you made a dish inspired by sound, what would it be? Which flavors would play together to give your food a voice, completing the five senses it requires to be fully experienced?

Crunchy

If you know me, you know it’s no secret that I love food competition shows. Iron Chef, Chopped, Top Chef (omg, new season in March, and in the meantime there’s Hulu!), Great British Baking Show, Zumbo’s Just Desserts, Beat Bobby Flay (but not Nailed It); I could watch for hours. So it’s not surprising that I’ve found and am working my way through Netflix’s The Final Table. Chefs work in pairs to create interesting plates based on the “national dish” of various countries, assessed by a panel of food critics and celebrities from the nations in question, all in a quest to be “seated at the Final Table” with global chefs renowned in their fields. I like it because it’s international in both contestants and judges, there’s no monetary prize, and the variety and complexity of dishes is interesting and sometimes inspiring (this week’s meal plan has two items inspired by the show). The global reach and the lack of prize money make it less brashly, shoutingly American than some competitions (that I totally watch anyway) – I find that winner-take-all, “I didn’t come here to make friends” attitude off-putting and I yell at the contestants who engage in it.*

In one episode I watched recently, the contestants were tasked with cooking a Japanese dish. One team used geoduck clam in a sashimi, which food writer and culinary advisor to the Japanese government Akiko Katayama described as enjoyable in part because it was “crunchy.” Though this seems like an odd adjective to use for seafood, I knew what she meant instantly. And then I became suddenly, hugely unsatisfied with the word as it is used in English.

Let me explain. First, think of cucumbers.

Now, think of your favorite cracker or chip.

Now, think of – well – non-smooth peanut butter.

Now, think of the batter coating on a piece of nicely fried fish.

All of these are “crunchy.” All of them are so starkly different in their actual texture, yet we only have this one word to describe them. Oh yes, I hear you saying “what about crisp or crispy?” Yes, okay, that’s true. But we still use “crunchy” to designate all of them, and it simply isn’t sufficient. Chewy is the same way: we use it to describe the unhappy rubber of a poorly cooked ring of calamari, but also the lovely toothy pull of good ciabatta or the perfect pizza dough. And when we do have the right words, the precise, definition-specific term for the food in question, we often don’t use it because its connotations are all wrong. I’ve written about this with oily vs. buttery, but the same is true for a descriptor like “fatty.”

So the questions I’m pondering this week is: where are our other food adjectives? Did we used to have more, but somehow they were subsumed into these few, larger, not-quite-precise-enough options? How do we decide, among the adjectives we do have, which have positive and which have negative connotations, and who does that deciding? Can we reclaim words like oily and fatty and make them mean something positive again?

 

 

* That said, I could have done without a good bit of the show’s insistence on pageantry, especially in the final episode. The moment I hated and then loved and then hated was when all of the renowned chefs were being reintroduced, paraded onto a stage one to one side, one to the other, and I suddenly realized what was going to happen: although the chef from the United States had not previously been singled out with any special focus, here he was going to be the guy in the middle. But one of the renowned chefs – the one from Spain, I think – apparently didn’t get that memo, and stood in the middle spot for a few seconds before he either realized or was told the plan and quickly shifted over to leave room…

I think this could be a good show and I would willingly watch a second season, though I’d like to see them find a more comfortable stride and let some of the showboating fall aside. The host Andrew Knowlton, who I remember from his long-maned Bon Appetit and Iron Chef America days, is smart and food-savvy, and seeing him drop his Ryan Seacrest persona (the new haircut doesn’t help) and talk to the contestants about what they are making is great. His showmanship as announcer and host, however, could be less – well – showy. And the moment in the final episode when he paused in the middle of all the pageantry to take not just a photo of all the chef/judges on stage, but a selfie, made me cringe.