SALT AND SWEET
Bangkok, 5 February, 2015
A few weeks ago, I visited a couple of electric arc furnaces which were recycling scrap steel. It was a very interesting visit, the first time I had seen this type of furnace in action.
They are a nice example of a vital step in what the Chinese call a “circular economy”, an economy in which the materials we use do not simply get thrown away after we’ve finished with them, but are collected, recovered, and reused.
But actually, what I want to focus on in this post is the dinner we were served during the visit, or rather on one course of that dinner. I should explain that since these furnaces work on electricity and since electricity is expensive in Thailand during the day, the furnaces are run at night. So the visit of the furnaces started at 8 o’clock in the evening, and the first company we visited kindly offered us dinner to fortify us for the hot and dusty visit which awaited us. Since this was a Chinese-owned company, we were served a Chinese-style dinner which, after my five years spent in China, brought a nostalgic mist to my eye. As is usual in China, the dinner ended with fresh fruit. But this fruit course had an interesting twist. We were served fresh pineapple with a soy sauce dip. Soy sauce! That is not something I had ever thought of combining with pineapple. But actually it was delicious.
This is the only photo I could find on the (English-language) web which in any way resembled what we found before us at dessert time, but even this is for a recipe where the pineapple is fried, which explains the presence in the photo of the coriander (to be used as a final garnish). I take this lack of photos to be an indicator that I may be one of the few in the English-speaking world who has tried this particular combination of sweet and salt. But readers are free to disabuse me of my belief.
In any event, as I let my taste buds deal with this interesting sweet-salt combination, I remembered a conversation we had had around the Christmas lunch table about precisely this issue: the mixing of salt and sweet. Our son had maintained that it was not natural to mix sweet and salt, and more generally that different flavours should be kept separate. Our daughter maintained that there were many dishes where salt and sweet were combined, which suggested that actually it was quite natural to mix sweet and salt. I was torn. As my long-suffering wife knows only too well, I object to mixing things on my plate: the vegetables are to be kept neatly separated from the meat and from each other, the dressing from the salad should not be allowed to leak over to the meat, etc. So on these grounds, I also feel that sweet and salt should not mix. Yet I have to acknowledge that there are dishes where the sweet and salt combination is exceedingly pleasing. After the pineapple and soy sauce dip experience, I resolved to do some research (a.k.a. web browsing) on the topic.
I’ve now done the research and am ready to report back, although I must confess to not having much to report. All agree that “common sense” suggests that salt and sweet do not mix, yet all agree that actually many of us do like to mix the two. Why is this? As far as I can make out, no-one has really figured it out. One possible answer is biochemical. The sodium ions of salt somehow enhance all taste buds: “there’s evidence that applying a sodium-channel blocker (TTX) can dramatically inhibit the activity of all taste receptors, suggesting that sodium plays a key role in the cellular detection of every taste (and not just the taste of salty things) … This would explain why food without any salt is so hopelessly boring: it might be literally harder for our various taste receptors to get excited.” So mixing salt with sweet enhances sweet because of a biochemical pathway we are born with. Just to make the whole discussion sound even more scientific, I throw in here a close-up of a taste bud on a tongue, which is what sodium ions seem to be enhancing.
But why would we have evolved to have that biochemical pathway? One possible answer is that because we humans are omnivores, we’re wired to desire many different foods and tastes. It’s bad for us to eat just one thing, so our sense of taste has evolved to give us greater gratification if we mix tastes. My wife will be very pleased to hear that there is a scientific underpinning to her insistence on mixing foods and tastes.
Let me celebrate this new understanding on my part of my biological processes by sharing with readers some of the wonderful sweet-salt dishes which I have stumbled across in my life. Where to start? Well, at the beginning, I guess, with the first such dish I ever remember trying, lamb with mint sauce. My English grandmother had taken me to visit an uncle and aunt and assorted cousins, and my aunt served us lamb with mint sauce for lunch.
She served it with two veg, as is de rigeur for any English meat dish. In this case, I remember distinctly that the veg in question were that most English of combinations, peas and potatoes (she also made a magnificent apple crumble, by the way; no apple crumble I have ever eaten since has tasted so good).
Mint sauce is really easy to make, by the way, about as easy as lamb chops. I give an executive-summary recipe at the end of the post for those readers who are interested. What I think is important to point out here is that the recipe calls for a mix of sugar and vinegar. In my humble opinion the best combination is actually sweet, salt, and acid or tartness. To my mind, that’s what made the pineapple and soy sauce so good, the fact that the pineapple is also tart. Dragon fruit, a much milder fruit, was being served along with the pineapple. When I asked if that too should be dipped in the soy sauce, our hosts pursed their lips and gave it as their considered opinion that it wouldn’t work.
Lamb with mint sauce is incredibly English (and I mean English. I don’t think the Scots or the Welsh eat it). It is so English that the French made fun of Les Anglais because of it – the French consider the use of mint sauce to be beyond the cooking pale. Our friends Goscinny and Uderzo, who wrote the Asterix and Obelix stories, had mint sauce play a major role in our heroes’ adventures in Britain, with the governor of province at one point shouting that if his men did not find the pair (who had just disappeared from prison) he would have his commanders boiled and served with mint sauce to the lions. To which the commanders commented how horrible that would be – for the lions.
The French loved it, lapping up the fun being poked at English cuisine. But I will ignore the smirking French and concentrate on another great example of English cuisine which is also a sweet-salt dish, roast pork and apple sauce. I first had this delicious dish as a boy scout. It was summer, the end of the school year, that time in the calendar when England can often be bathed in golden light rather than be grey and sodden. For our last outing of the year, the scout master had the brilliant idea of buying a whole pig and roasting it on a spit in the woods. I have this crystal clear memory of sitting around the spit, listening to the fat crackle, breathing in the smell of cooking meat, watching the scout master sharpen the large carving knife, while the sunlight dappled the ground all around us. It’s the closest I have ever felt to being a Cro-Magnon man.
And then there was the discovery of the exquisite taste of roast pork and apple sauce, a large dollop of which was dumped onto our metal field plates along with a big slab of pork meat and crackling.
Those readers interested in knowing how to make this sauce should scroll down to the end of the post. I just want to note that cooking apples should be used. They are tarter than eating apples. It’s the tartness thing again. One can also add lemon zest, presumably to add yet more tartness.
Of course, the English do not have a monopoly in Europe on sweet-salt dishes. Allow me to introduce here a dish I discovered and came to love when we moved to Vienna: Tafelspitz. There is a venerable ritual to cooking Tafelspitz, but when you reduce it to its essentials it is beef meat (topside or top round) boiled slowly over many hours with a medley of root vegetables – carrot, celeriac, parsnip and the like – and a piece of marrow bone. It is normally served like this:
You can start with a cup of the broth which is engendered by the boiling of the meat, just to whet your appetite. You can then turn your attention to the meat proper, which you will eat with the vegetables, possibly some fried grated potatoes, and – to spice up what is otherwise a rather bland dish – two types of sauce, a cream-based chive sauce and apple-horseradish sauce.
My earnest suggestion is that you ignore the chive sauce in the front of the photo and go with the apple-horseradish sauce behind it. It is just a variant of the apple sauce I described earlier; you simply add grated horseradish. If you make this sauce at home, my further suggestion is to be generous with the amount of horseradish you add. The best Tafelspitz I ever had was served with an apple-horseradish sauce that made my eyes water slightly. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, endlessly repeating myself, but tartness really helps appreciation of the sweet-salt taste.
Both the French and the Italians have a similar dish of boiled meat, pot-au-feu in the first case and bollito misto in the second. My French grandmother made an excellent pot-au-feu and I am very fond of it, but since it is normally eaten with mustard I will drop it from this discussion. We shall focus instead on bollito misto, a dish which is very popular in northern Italy and (as the name suggests) consists of a variety of boiled meats: cuts of beef and veal, cotechino (a pork-based sausage), and sections of hen or capon.
My wife reminisces from time to time that her father was very fond of bollito misto, eating it like most northern Italians do with a sauce called mostarda – actually, mostarda di Cremona. In a country known for the fierce independence of its cities, it will come as no surprise to the readers that probably every city in northern Italy has its own variety of mostarda. Despite its name, the sauce has only a little to do with mustard. It is really a mix of candied fruit which is given a kick by the addition of mustard powder (that tartness thing again…). Those slices of fruit in the photo above are the mostarda, but I give here a more direct picture.
My wife confesses to never having liked mostarda; she can’t even stand the smell. Personally, I have never tried it, but a number of sites do support my wife’s assertion, mentioning that the taste of mostarda is an “acquired taste”. This is normally code for saying that something tastes revolting the first several/many times you try it. In any event, if my wife says it’s not nice, then that’s good enough for me! No spoonful of it shall ever pass my lips. For those readers who will ignore these warnings and wish to try it, though, I give a brief recipe at the end of the post.
I feel that I cannot move away from mostarda without mentioning the somewhat similar chutney sauce one finds in the UK, or at least one found when I was a boy. Although “chutney” as a word has Indian roots, what I ate as a boy was several removes from things Indian. The most popular brand back then was a mango chutney which went by the name of Major Grey’s Chutney and was sold by Crosse & Blackwell. The story went that a certain Major Grey, a British officer in India, had surveyed the local Indian chutneys and then invented his own, more British, chutney, which he proceeded to bring back to the motherland when he retired, to remind him of the Good Old Days. When I was a boy I rather imagined this Major Grey to look like this
fighting heroically against savage natives on the Northwest frontier and getting a VC for his –quite literal – pains. But alas! this appears to be pure legend. It seems that something similar to mostarda, some sort of fruit conserve, existed already in the UK and the Brits in India took the idea with them and adapted it to local ingredients. So what this chutney will usually have as ingredients is mangoes, raisins, vinegar, onions, sugar, and spices. Crosse & Blackwell also include lime juice and tamarind juice. As you can imagine from the ingredients, this chutney is both sweet and tart. Again, for heroic readers who want to make this sauce from scratch, scroll to the end of the post.
I haven’t eaten this kind of chutney in many decades, but when I was young my favourite way of eating it was with slices of cold meat (the chutney is in the round bowl to the left of the photo below).
This was an especially popular dish in pubs, where this photo was taken. Sitting here in Thailand, I feel a sudden nostalgia for the English country pubs whose bars I propped up in my youth, so I am moved to throw in a photo of a nice country pub.
Like Superman, I now vault over to the US and alight somewhere in the open ranges of the Midwest, for no better reason than having this feeling that my next salt-sweet sauce – barbecue sauce – was invented around there somewhere. That being said, my wife and I didn’t try it there. We were just discussing this point and we reckon that it was somewhere between Boston and Washington in the early 1980s. Wherever it was, we stared open-mouthed at these large racks of ribs smothered in this dark reddish brown sauce.
But very soon we were closing our mouths over those ribs. Ah, that sauce! … But I should say: those sauces. In this little research I’ve done I have discovered that there are dozens of different barbecue sauces. I thought the Italian quarrels about where the best mostarda is made were fierce, but boy! the arguments about what place in the US makes the best barbecue sauce are right up there. I’m going to keep my head low without backing any particular sauce. I’m merely going to say that wherever the sauces are made they all seem to have sugar (preferably brown), tomato ketchup, vinegar, and some salt, to which various spices are added in varying levels and in different combinations (Worcestershire sauce, pepper, paprika, mustard, chili, cayenne, and on and on). That combination of sweet and tart again, to challenge the salt of the meat. Readers can look at the end of a post for condensed recipe of an excellent sauce from Kansas City (but don’t tell anyone I said it).
Deary me, I seem to have gone on for quite a while here, and I’m sure I haven’t covered one-hundredth of the sweet-salt dishes enjoyed around the world. On top of it, I’ve only mentioned meat dishes; it makes me sound a total carnivore, red in tooth and claw. But there was that fish dish in Shanghai … and there are all those sweet salad sauces to pour on vegetables … But I have to stop. I’ll just add two final combinations of salt and sweet which show that meat (or fish) is not the only food the delight of which is heightened by the salt-sweet experience: one which probably every person on the planet has enjoyed by now, what with the prevalence of fast food joints, french fries and ketchup
and one which I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, chocolate and French baguette
Mmm, so good!
So give your taste buds a whirl and douse them with sugar and salt – and a dash of vinegar, or horseradish, or something tart. Enjoy!
Mint sauce: Strip the leaves off a bunch of mint, sprinkle them with a pinch of salt, and chop finely. Place the result in a bowl, add 1 level tablespoon of caster sugar and pour over the mix 4 tablespoons of boiling water. Stir and leave to cool. Stir in 4 tablespoons of vinegar. Add more water or vinegar to suit your taste.
Apple sauce: Take a number of cooking apples, peel them, core them, and chop them up. Put the apples in a saucepan and add water. Once can also add lemon zest. Cover and cook over a low heat until the apples have gone soft and mushy. At which point take off the heat and beat in a knob of butter and a teaspoon of sugar. Cool.
Mostarda di Cremona: Begin by washing the various fruit: pears, quinces, cherries, apricots, figs, and peaches (although I’m sure you can vary the fruit as you wish). Cut the apricots and peaches into halves or quarters (depending on their size) and remove their stones, peel. Core and quarter the pears and quinces. Dry all the fruit after preparation. Add the sugar – a lot of sugar! half a kilo for every kilo of fruit, more if you want your mostarda sweet (but for reasons suggested above, I would go easy on the sweetness and maybe go heavier on the mustard powder). Pour some squeezed orange juice over it. Let the whole rest for 24 hours, gently turning the pieces a couple of times. By the end of this time the sugar will have dissolved. Drain the fruit well – without losing the syrup! Bring the syrup slowly to a boil, and let it boil gently until its volume is reduced by half. Pour the remaining syrup back over the fruit. The sugar in the now-concentrated syrup will extract more moisture from the fruit, which will begin to shrink and firm up. Concentrate the syrup again and steep the fruit in it overnight again. Dissolve several tablespoons of mustard powder in some white wine vinegar. Bring the mixture gently to a boil and let it bubble for a few minutes. In the meantime, drain the fruit again, and concentrate the syrup again. Put the candied fruit into jars, add the mustard powder infusion, and then add the hot syrup. The amount of infusion you add will determine of course how much of a kick your mostarda will have. Cover the jars and put them on a cool dark shelf. The mostarda will be ready to eat in two weeks’ time.
Major Grey’s chutney: (this is one of many recipes for this kind of chutney) Combine 4 cups of 5-6 medium-sized chopped mangoes, 1 cup of brown sugar, half a cup of molasses, 1 cup of vinegar, 1 cup of coarsely chopped onions, three-quarters of a cup of golden raisins, half a cup of seeded and chopped limes, half a cup of peeled, seeded and chopped orange, a quarter of a cup of peeled, seeded and chopped lemon, and finally a bunch of spices: half a cup of grated ginger root , 3 cloves of minced garlic, 1 tablespoon of mustard seed, 1 tablespoon of dried red pepper flakes. Cook for about 30 minutes, stirring often. Add 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro, 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon, a quarter of a teaspoon of ground cloves, a quarter of a teaspoon of ground allspice. Cook for another 10 minutes or so, until chutney starts to thicken. Ladle chutney into a jar and close it air-tight.
Barbecue sauce: (from Kansas City) In a saucepan over medium heat, stir together ½ cup of ketchup, 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, 1 tablespoon of cider vinegar, 2 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce, ¼ teaspoon of salt, ¼ teaspoon of mustard powder, 1 teaspoon of garlic powder, and a dash of hot pepper sauce. Bring to a simmer, then remove from heat and allow to cool.
Pineapple and soy sauce: http://static.squarespace.com/static/51107688e4b0e3b888c1183b/t/519f0a2ee4b0bb6d74d9bdcf/1369377327493/Grilled+Soy-Sauce+Pineapple (in http://larkspurcompany.com/blog/2013/5/20/grilled-soy-sauce-pineapple)
Taste bud closeup: http://cdn1-www.webecoist.momtastic.com/assets/uploads/2010/01/tongue-taste-bud1.jpg (in http://webecoist.momtastic.com/2010/01/11/biological-photography-magnificent-microscopic-ultraminiature-photos/)
Asterix sauce a la menthe: http://www.prise2tete.fr/upload/NickoGecko-Saucementhe.jpg (in
Roasted pig: http://previews.123rf.com/images/azlightning/azlightning0908/azlightning090800003/5315340-whole-golden-roasted-pig-on-a-spit-spit-roasting-is-a-traditional-hawaiian-luau-method-of-cooking-a-.jpg (in http://www.123rf.com/photo_5315340_whole-golden-roasted-pig-on-a-spit-spit-roasting-is-a-traditional-hawaiian-luau-method-of-cooking-a-.html)
Roast pork and apple sauce: http://www.growingagreenerworld.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/123-dishAppleSauce_Pork.jpg (in http://www.growingagreenerworld.com/pork-tenderloin-spiced-applesauce-recipe/)
Mostarda di Cremona: http://www.cremonacitta.it/intranet/immagini/_resized/1/scheda/58/w/490x/Prodotti_De_Co_di_Cremona_la_Mostarda_cremonese-img58-01-1.jpg (in http://www.cremonacitta.it/it/gusto_e_sapori_a_cremona/prodotti_de_co_a_cremona_mostarda_tradizionale_sc_58.htm)
Cold meat and chutney: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/07/0d/d8/5a/blairs-inn.jpg (in http://www.tripadvisor.ie/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g186599-d2014376-i118347866-Blairs_Inn-Blarney_County_Cork.html)
British officer in India: http://i80.photobucket.com/albums/j199/matteaston/Afghan1.jpg (in http://www.fioredeiliberi.org/victorian/)
Ribs and sauce: http://www.cooldeals.es/Images/deal-images/eef5c31f-f992-46a5-8993-db0198715a35/20140818133044604.jpg (in http://www.cooldeals.es/Deals/Marbella-Estepona/9fd8ffad-612a-42de-8755-55153751c9e6)
French fries and ketchup: http://scms.machteamsoft.ro/uploads/photos/652×450/652x450_7b63084e7d5012a126811947191414.jpeg (in http://stiri.acasa.ro/social-125/afla-ce-alimente-ascund-sute-de-kilocalorii-110745.html)
Baguette with chocolate: http://a142.idata.over-blog.com/600×449/2/90/63/97/Autrefois-./Chocolat/Le-Bon-Chocolat–13-.JPG