Friday, February 2, 2007

The Taste of Red

In my random food-related perusings this evening, I came across an interesting question that got me all sorts of thinking; to paraphrase: How does a chef with a food allergy handle the preparation of a dish containing a potentially fatal (to them) ingredient? Given how important the process of tasting along the way, how does an allergic chef create a dish that they can't taste?

The answer, in my experience, is they have someone whose palate they trust do the tasting for them.
Kevin has a pretty severe allergy to shellfish; if he has a small cut on his hand that isn't even visible to the naked eye and he deveins shrimp, his fingers swell. If, god forbid, he eats shellfish, his throat swells and he can't breathe.

It's only fitting, of course, that one of his specialties at the restaurant is lobster bisque. No one else there can make it quite as good as he does, and by this point he can use his eyes and nose in the cooking process just as effectively as his tastebuds.
Except when they run out of one of the components.
Usually he has one of the other guys in the kitchen do the tasting for him if needed - if he's handling a new recipe containing shellfish, or if he gets a hankering to add some more complexity to a recipe he already knows by sight & smell.

A few weeks back, he ran into a bit of a situation. The restaurant closes for a couple hours between lunch and dinner, and those hours are spent prepping for dinner service. The other sous was off somewhere running errands and Chef C. was out for the day, leaving Kevin to handle his prep with only the garde manger and the dishwashers as company.
He was getting the bisque ready when he discovered there was no cognac in the restaurant. No time to go on an excursion for more, so he subbed in sherry and threw some in a small bowl; he ran it home so I could be his palate for him. I know how the stuff is supposed to taste, and I suppose I'm a better stand-in than the dishwasher. (*grins*)

I dutifully taste-tested (OH NOEZ! I have to eat lobster bisque, life is unfair!!) and after a moment I realized I couldn't keep my palate's secret any longer. I didn't have time.
"It needs needs, needs something brown!" I blurted. He looked at me funny, and I flailed about trying to explain.

You see, the taste of food registers as colors in my brain.
Oh sure, I can eat food and identify that there's basil in it, or fish sauce, or whatever. It's the categories of taste that I interpret as various colors, and I can only translate that into specific ingredients or classes of ingredient when I have time to sort it out in my head.

When I said the bisque needed something "brown," I meant that it was missing a certain earthiness - a murky pungency that came from the cognac. That flavor category registers as the color brown to me. Other brown tastes are cumin and chipotle.
The color green means a bright, but not citrus-acidic, flavor. Herbs like dill and basil are obvious "greens" to me, but so too are some vinegars, and buttermilk & yogurt.
Reds are thick, sharp, and sometimes spicy. Tomatoes, bell peppers, cured sausages, and wine taste red.
Orange is mellow and mild, but with a substantial mouthfeel. Orange is my umami.
Yellow is a sharp, bright taste - often different from green but sometimes the two shade together. The "tang" in blue cheese tastes yellow to me, as does ginger and most citrus.
It goes on and on.

When I examine a recipe and think about how its components work together, it's almost like a painting of sorts. The handy image up at the top of this post pretty accurately illustrates what baked manicotti "looks like" in my mind as I prepare it. (do you like my masterful Photoshopping or what?)

My internal monologue as I cook would probably be pretty interesting if others could hear it. I taste the food, and I think "Hm, this needs more green. What kind of green do I want...." Then I decide if basil is green enough, or if I want something really bright green like a sharp vinegar - or do I want a greenish-yellow?

I know most people don't experience food like I do, with the colors and all. It makes it really difficult to explain how I put together a recipe sometimes, or how I decide what flavors to pair with others. You can't just tell someone that you added enough red until it tasted right, or that their bisque needs something brown, ya know? You get some funny looks that way.

But honestly, I wouldn't want it any different.
It seems like it wouldn't be quite as interesting if food didn't taste like a rainbow.


Brilynn said...

I loved your description of flavours as colours!

Freya said...

Awesome Chellie, just awesome!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you have a form of synethesia. I have a friend who sees each letter and number (digit) as a different color. I always thought it was pretty cool.