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[INFOGRAPHIC] Knowledge of Gustation

Wednesday, 11/08/2017 11:01
Understanding how to combine and balance flavors is an important cooking concept that will allow you to create flavorful dishes every time you cook.

Understanding how to combine and balance flavors is an incredibly important cooking concept, and it’s especially evident in Asian food. Almost every feature Asian dish is like a jelly pearl – the first bite comes with bursting flavors on the tongue. One obvious example is the curry, which has greasy sweet taste of coconut milk, pure sweetness of sugar, umami taste of fish sauce, barely warm and charming herbs, and irresistible sourness of a piece of lime. All those taste has blended together and made a perfect balance of the dish.

Sometimes, we have followed recipes but finished dishes still seem not right. They can be lack of sweet or salty, meaning the balance has not been made. By understanding regular spices right in the kitchen, we can adjust and fix those problems without taking any professional class.

Let’s start with a star of flavors.

If a flavor balances another flavor, it means it counteracts or offsets that flavor to achieve an even more harmonious taste. For example, spice balances sweet and sweet balances spice. It’s why southern sweet and sour soup usually takes even spoons of fish sauce and sweet; or in Thai hot pot, we can use more sugar to reduce the spicy taste of chili.

Flavors can also enhance each other. If you look at the Flavor Star, you see that salty enhances sweet and vice versa. This is why there are sea salt caramels or sea salt chocolate chip cookies. That light addition of saltiness actually amplifies the sweetness of those caramels and cookies.

If you keep this Flavor Star handy, you can learn how to create more dynamic flavors, rescue dishes that have been overly flavored, and also how to amplify certain flavors.

Salty/ Umami

We’re lumping salty and umami together because they share a lot of the same characteristics. If you ever end up with a bland dish, the likely issue is that it’s just under-seasoned.

Standing in kitchens long enough, we will understand that under-seasoned dish is the most common mistake made by the show’s contestants, who are all professional chefs. Even experienced chefs would consider twice when dealing with strange ingredients. However, once we understand the relationship between savory and the other 4, we will be more confident to save dishes lacked of saltiness.

The most obvious choice is salt but indeed, we have dozens other ingredients to enhance the umami of dishes. Instead of salt, we can use soy sauce or fish sauce for broth, use parmesan cheese for western food, or salted butter to sauté vegetables as side dishes. Some ingredients themselves have savory taste, we just need to use the other flavors to enhance it up.


Sweet taste is not as simple as candies or desserts. In fact, a combination between sweetness and sourness/saltiness/bitterness/(even) pungency is always much more delicious and impressive.

Sweetness is always the main element in sauces and dipping sauces since in general, sweetness can balance out all the other four. A full spoon of mild sweet sauce can save an over/under-seasoned dish, as well as enhance the main flavors. We might say sweetness is the last drop to complete a balance dish.

Naturally sweet ingredients such as corns, sweet yams, carrots, daikon, or peas just need a direct saltiness to make their sweetness bolder and more impressive.


In general, sourness is an annoying condiment because it has too many tones. There are mild sourness with a hint of acridness from young leaves, russet sourness from wild leaves to for sour soup (especially with chicken), harsh yet extremely aromatic sourness from apple cider vinegar, and also smooth adorable sourness from ripe pickled mustard.

Each tone of sourness is only used for one or some specific dishes, such as tom yum hot pot must have sour tamarind but not sour star fruits. It’s really complicated but no one can deny the stimulating effects of sourness to both gustative and olfactory receivers.

Sourness can balance sweetness and spice out. That’s why some drops of sour liquid always make better taste.


Typically, you don’t want to add bitter to your meals, but if you do, according to the Flavor Star, you should use it to balance out salty or sweet flavors. Human instinct considers bitterness as toxins so the majority can’t bare bitter food as dark chocolate, black coffee, beer, or bitter melon. However, if you like it, you’ll be addicted to it. That’s the bitter truth.

Somehow the bitter food usually has surprisingly uses. Most of them can help increase the ability of digestive system while theobromine (C7H8N4O2) in cocoa or caffeine in coffee can stimulate the nervous system, help to stay awake and also reduce stress.

The bitterness can be balanced out by sweetness or saltiness. Therefore, naturally bitter ingredients as bitter melon, kale, or endive lettuce just need a pinch of sweet, salty, or even sour seasonings to be perfect.


Even though the flavor star shows that spiciness can be balanced out by sweetness and sourness, in fact it is playing a specific role in the balance of a dish, called a highlight.

Spicy taste from hot peppers/chili is a compound of capsaicin (C18H27NO3), which stimulates heat receptors and pain in the mouth such as burning sensation and pain. Receiving that signal, the body’s nervous system quickly releases endorphins to relieve pain in response, creating a calm and comfort feeling. This may explain why spicy foods are so addictive. Another non-hot spicy taste is peppermint. Its essential oil, instead, brings cool feeling, helps to wake up the nervous system, and create a sense of wellbeing. All these feelings really increase the taste of food up.

The truth is someone’s appetite can be others’ worst horror – just as Vietnamese durian. Tastes are absolutely subjective and individualistic, affected by tons of inner and outer elements. Moreover, our taste receivers have always changed; therefore, once we understand roles and relationships among the big basic 5, we’ll have the elementary of how to balance both familiar and new dishes and we’ll be much more confident to create our own dishes.

By Thu Pham

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