Taste plays a pivotal role in Thai cuisine, much more so than in any other cuisines. This is because Thai food gains much of its character by addition, arriving at a finished dish that is greater than the sum of its parts. To achieve 'taste' or what Thais would call 'rod chart', depends upon the interplay of various different elements within the dish. A sense of balance in seasoning is achieved to varying degrees in varying dishes. Each dish has its own accepted flavour profile, for example a Massamun Curry should be sweet, sour, salty with a hint of spiciness in the background at the end. From a wider perspective, within a Thai meal there are usually several dishes served with rice, therefore a balance between these dishes needs to be reached. A sour orange curry can be served with sweet caramelised prawns and a refreshing crisp salad of cucumbers.
To add to the complexity, each person has their own preference for taste, some might prefer a Massamun curry to be equally sweet, sour and salty to the same degree or what Thais would call 'sam rod'. Therefore the seasoning of this dish depends on varying quantity of palm sugar, tamarind and fish sauce, according to the taste and preference of each cook. As a matter of fact, there has never been exact measurements in Thai cooking. So subjective is taste, that old recipes rarely include the quantity of each ingredient and often conclude with 'prung rot tam chai chop' (season to your heart's desire). This flexibility means that nothing is set in stone, each cook will interpret a recipe in their own way and start to develop their own preferred flavour profile and slight variations for each dish.
TASTE can be experienced by the human tongue, the tongue itself can only experience five different tastes, salty, sour, sweet, bitter, umami. To master Thai cookery, thorough understanding of these basic tastes forms the building blocks. The addition of seasoning plays a significant role in the success and balance of each and every dish. A useful exercise to help gain a better understanding of each dish as it develops, is to constantly taste it at every single stage, observing the constant transformation of taste that occurs throughout the course of the dish as new ingredients are added. By the addition of various seasoning ingredients, layer upon layer of taste combine together to create a 'tasty' dish.An emphasis on taste can be well demonstrated in a piece of fish cooked in a Thai style. The plain piece of fish maybe dipped in a sauce made from a handful of chilies, garlic and seasoned generously with lime juice, fish sauce and rounded off with sugar. Or the raw fish could be pounded, mixed with a fiery curry paste, seasoned with fish sauce and deep fried into fish cakes, served with a sweet & sour cucumber relish. Most times the subtlety and the natural flavour of the main ingredient plays a supporting role to the strongly flavoured seasonings and pungent herbs employed in each dish. The fish plays its part to elevate the dish into something greater than itself rather than becoming the centerpiece of the meal.
FLAVOUR exists in each and every ingredient, unable to be experienced through the tongue, but instead by our sense of smell. There are only five basics tastes, but there are thousands of different flavours that our brain can decipher, each one distinctively unique. This is the reason why, when we have a flu, we also lose appetite. As the airflow through our nose is blocked, our sense of smell is compromised, resulting in reduced ability to decipher the subtle nuances in flavour of what we are actually eating. In western cuisines, it is the singular flavour of each ingredient that is appreciated on its own merit, enhanced with a small amount of seasoning, simply a pinch or salt and freshly ground black pepper. More emphasis is placed on bringing out and enhancing the natural flavour of the main ingredient. Using the same piece of fish as an example, it will certainly taste predominantly of itself with a minimal amount of additional seasonings and other ingredients added, as not to overpower the main attraction of the dish. The piece of fish might simply be pan fried with olive oil and perhaps some butter and presented with a wedge of lemon. Or it could be placed on a bed of vegetables, seasoned with salt and pepper, moistened with white wine, wrapped en papillote and baked. Often, the fillet is kept whole, or portioned very large, displaying and retaining the inherent integrity of itself. The fish plays a significant role in the finished dish, becoming the centerpiece of the meal.
SALTY / เค็ม
Experienced when there is a presence of sodium ions which can be found in salt, fish sauce, soy sauce, kapi. Sea salt has been used for dried, fermented and pickled foods as a preservation method for centuries. If a dish is too salty, it can be balanced by adding sweetness. A pinch of salt is often added to Thai desserts to add balance and reduce the cloy of too much sweetness.
SWEET / หวาน
Experienced when there is a presence of various types of sugars and can be found in white sugar, palm sugar, and various fruits. Nowadays, Thai tastes tends to go towards more sweetness in savory dishes, with a pinch of sugar being added. If a dish is too sweet, it can be balanced by adding sourness or saltiness.
SOUR / เปรี้ยว
Experienced when there is a presence of acidity and can be found in lime juice, tamarind water, coconut vinegar, and various fruits and sour leaves. Sourness also has the ability to contrast and balance out richness, a Massamum curry is always served with a sour cucumber relish or pickled vegetables which cuts through the richness. If a dish is too sour, it can be balanced by adding sweetness.
BITTER / ขม
Often perceived as unpleasant, when balanced correctly, it adds depth to a dish and can be found in various vegetables such as bitter melon, chinese kale and sadao. Grilled catfish with sweet fish sauce is eaten with bitter sadao leaves to act as a foil for the sweetness. If a dish is too bitter, it can be balanced by adding sweetness and a pinch of salt.
UMAMI / อูมามิ
Can be found in high levels in Monosodium Glutamate, discovered by Professor Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. Umami has always existed naturally with the presence of glutamate which gives a delicious, meaty savory taste and a delicious mouthfeel. Present in Fish sauce, soy sauce, mushrooms, tomatoes, chinese cabbage and fermented and aged products. Many modern seasoning powders contain MSG.
TASTE / รสชาด
is quite straightforward, as we can only experience a total of five tastes on the over 2000 tastebuds on our tongue, namely sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. These different tastes are balanced to varying degrees in a dish.
SMELL / กลิ่น
is experienced through the olfactory, this sense nuances of flavours that our tastebuds are incapable of deciphering, the human brain is able to distinguish between over 200000 different smells. Most raw ingredients do not have a particular taste, therefore we can experience them by distinguishing their unique aroma.
SIGHT / การเห็น
A beautifully presented dish appeals to us and whets the appetite, what we see also sends signals to the brain of what to expect. The finest wine may not taste as good in a disposable plastic cup, or a strawberry ice cream may not seem as intensely strawberry flavoured if it was white instead of pink. What we see is closely linked to our association and preconceived expectation.
TOUCH / แตะต้อง
The texture of food adds another dimension to our eating experience and creates varying sensations in mouthfeel. It also adds richness to the eating experience by becoming directly connected to the food through touch. Imagine eating grilled chicken and sticky rice with your hands as opposed to using a knife and fork.
SOUND / เสียง
and our immediate environment plays an important role in our experience of food, it can greatly affect our mood and perception. Imagine eating freshly grilled prawns from the coals, next to the ocean with the sound of waves lapping against the beach as opposed to eating the same grilled prawns on an airplane with the constant sound of the engine humming in the background.