Green papaya salad

Searching For Balance: Exploring Umami In Cuisines (Part 1)

My mother had a remarkable ability to balance flavors and textures in even the daily multi-course Indian meal. This sounds very simple to achieve, but when done correctly, aromatics abound and color saturates the meal, while flavors pop on your tongue. In the Indian Ayurvedic healing practices, a healthy body requires a balance of sour, bitterness, salt, astringent, sweet, and pungent tastes. When I learned of yet another flavor, umami, I wondered how this elusive taste could transform what A. and N. call a “meh” meal to one loaded with a multi-sensory experience.

Umami, in Japanese, loosely translates as delicious food, and is the fifth taste after salty, sour, sweet, and bitter. The “meaty or hearty” sensation felt on the tongue is the taste of glutamates or salts of glutamic acid, made famous by MSG, the now much maligned food additive. Glutamate salts exist naturally in seaweed, some vegetables, seafood, and meat. In Far Eastern cooking, they are used commonly as fermented fish sauce and soy sauce.

I experimented with fish sauce as I reworked a Thai recipe for my favorite papaya salad with ingredients that were available at home. When I attended a Thai cooking class recently, our instructor would remind us to “check for balance,” just before we plated our creations. By pounding individual flavors of chilies, salt, sugar, and tangy lime before adding fish sauce, it became easy to savor the fifth element both in conjunction and separate from the others. The process also led me to want to learn how other cuisines, especially those not served in groupings, manage the delicate balance.

Green Apple And Cucumber Salad

(Adapted from a Thai-style Green Papaya Salad)

Green Apple – 1, cored and finely shredded

Cucumber – 1 medium, peeled, deseeded and shredded

Green beans – 5, sliced thinly in 1-inch pieces

Serrano chilies – 2-3, deseeded and sliced

Garlic –3 cloves, peeled and sliced

Tomato – 1, quartered

Salt – ¼- ½ tsp

Fish sauce – 1 tbsp

Sugar (white, brown or palm) – 1 tbsp

Lime – 1-2 tbsp, juice

  • In a mortar and pestle, crush the chilies and garlic.
  • Add the sugar and pound until incorporated.
  • Add the beans and crush lightly. (If the following ingredients don’t fit into the mortar, move them into a larger bowl.)
  • Add the shredded apple and cucumber into the bowl. Gently crush them with the pestle.
  • Add the limejuice, salt, fish sauce, and tomatoes. Toss gently. Taste just once (or else your tongue gets overwhelmed) to adjust and balance the flavors.
  • Serve immediately.