Why are you a Sourpuss?
Is it because you love namasu? Or do you simply relish the palate cleansing effect of a splash of
lemon juice? Or are you simply a sour person? Personally, I’ve never really been a huge fan of
Japanese pickled vegetables or namasu. By itself that is. But consuming it as a side dish to
cleanse the palate between bites of fatty proteins or used as a contrast to richer flavors like
smoked, roasted or cured pork or just simply providing a contrasting cold crunch, that’s where
As highlighted in the previous month’s columns, sour taste receptors are one of the five basic
flavor sensations residing on our tongues. And like bitter, sour helps balance the sweeter and
saltier nature of foods as well as refresh the palate between bites of richer tasting foods. That’s
why oilier fish dishes benefit from a squeeze of lemon. Or why coleslaw (yes, it is mayonnaise
but also vinegar based) provides the perfect balance to pulled pork. Or why those pickled daikon
and carrots help balance a perfect banh mi with roasted pork and pork liver pate.
What exactly is the Sour Sensation?
What your taste buds actually are detecting are dissolved acids. They may be as simple as the
hydrochloric acid that “repeats” from your stomach or the organic acids like citric acid from
citrus fruits, tartaric acid from wines or malic acid from that tart green apple. Or it can be that
simple bottled acid, acetic acid which is the primary acid in basic vinegar.
What the sour receptors do provide is an awakening or refreshing of the palate. In the case of
sour candies, it’s usually a jolt of stimulation to shock our palates. When it’s the judicious
application of vinegar or citrus juice, it complements other foods and refreshes and cleanses the
palate preparing us for that next bite of food.
One of the basic Asian sauces that I’m sure you’ve already sampled is a sweet and sour sauce.
Probably at your neighborhood Chinese restaurant which is usually served on medallions of pork
seasoned with ketchup and garnished with pineapple chunks. Or perhaps it was as simple as Panda’
s orange chicken. But in any case, the sweet and sour play off of each other and balances the
flavor sensations. One or perhaps several flavor sensations higher is the traditional Chinese hot
and sour soup. Now if this soup doesn’t awaken your palate, it’s probably dead or at least
hibernating through winter.
And it’s not just the Chinese who know that balancing various basic flavor sensations brightens
food, European food culture also have the same interplay between sweet and sour. The Italians
have agrodolce which translates to sweet and sour while the French have aigre-doux which also
translates to sweet and sour. And the French also produce one of my favorite sauces, a gastrique
which is basically vinegar that’s used to deglaze a caramelized sauce like duck sauce or the classic
sauce for Duck a l ’Orange.
I once had pan fried sweetbreads served with an apricot gastrique that both the Mrs. and I still
dream about. The sweet and sour flavors balance each other while the tart quality of the vinegar
cut through the rich flavors of the sweetbread. Died and gone to heaven! And whenever I
purchase a container of fried pig’s ears from my local Farmer’s Market, I always enjoy it with my
Pinot Noir, fig and balsamic gastrique.
More than Just for Vinaigrettes
I posted this recipe about 6 years ago highlighting the humble eggplant (http://the-gochiso-
gourmet.blogspot.com/2008/08/deadly-nightshade.html). It’s the Italian version of the
French ratatouille with one major difference; it has a nice hit of acid from the red wine vinegar
that makes it as refreshing as a nice summer salad with a bright vinaigrette. Therefore you can
serve it cold as you would a salad or serve it warm as a refreshing side dish. Or you can create
your own gastrique:
1 to 2 cups fruit
1 tbsp olive oil
1 shallot, minced
3 tbsp sugar
4 tbsp wine
3 tbsp vinegar
Salt and black pepper to taste
½ to 1 tsp of optional spice
Combine ingredients in a small sauce pan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to
low and simmer until fruit is tender, 7 to 10 minutes. Pour mixture into a food processor and
purée. There are no hard rules to making a gastrique. Adjust the sugar and vinegar based on the
ripeness and tartness of the fruit used. Red or white wine can be used based on the fruit and the
protein it will be served with and you can select any one of a number of vinegars – red wine,
balsamic, champagne and even flavored vinegars. Use your imagination.
Be a Sourpuss
So the next time your palate needs a little refreshing, stimulate those sour taste buds with more
than just sour candy. Add homemade pickles to your next sandwich creation or even vinegar
based coleslaw to perk up those taste buds. Experiment with citrus and vinegar based sauces to
balance richer proteins and create your own gastriques. Remember that well rounded culinary
creations stimulate all of our taste buds!