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Taste to remember

or why the brain has more to do with your lunch than the stomach

Everybody has a certain relationship with food, from foodies to anorexics, food is the main drive in our lives. As one of our basic needs and our main source of energy it fulfills more than just our Polyphagia, as white coats use with sophistication to describe hunger. Our bodies need food and also reacts to it in more than just physical intake of energy. As we climb higher on the Maslow’s scale from being able to chew on live kicking grasshoppers to prevent starvation, our needs evolve level by level to whimsical demands. There is added value to energy consumption – flavour, and as basic as it may seem, perception of favour is a complex gathering of several processes.

When we eat the molecules of food move throughout the back of the throat and reach nerves in our nose, which then send smell messages to the part of the brain called temporal lobe. This section is also involved with memory, particularly memories of place. So basically, flavour  is processed in the same part of the brain as memories and this is why flavours can evoke such powerful memories of certain lifetime episodes. A bite that flushes your head and pushes you in another time and place, leaves you amazed at how vividly you can feel memories in a bite. You don’t smell something and remember a phone number, how much fahrenheit is one degree celsius or something useful like that. You always remember something like a aunt’s living room or the first day of school. It happened to all of us, but it seems Proust got the most excited about it and wrote 3000 pages about his madeleines experience. As the flavour is dependent on many different factors, these experiences are very rare and glimpsing. But the neurological connections are so strong there are known cases of people recovering from amnesia with this phenomenon.

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Basically most of the flavour perception derives from smell. In general the sense of smell is fairly under researched. Despite our belief that sight and hearing are the two most important senses to our survival, from an evolutionary perspective smell is the most important sense. To recognize food or to detect poison, smell is the sense that almost all mammals use. Because of this basic feature yet vital role, smell is one of the oldest parts of our brain. The memorising begins in our prenatal period, as our flavour  preferences start to form according to our mother’s cravings. Memories of earlier experiences are a major factor in our decisions as to what we eat and what we don’t eat. The way were fed as children has a huge impact on our way of eating habits, and even though my mother can’t stand a smell of curry let along take a bite, me on the contrary have basically lived of curry for weeks. What matters is that I was introduced to a wide array of possible flavours very early and learn to trust and have fun with tasting.

 The way we accept novelties is of course connected to our previous experiences with trying out new bites, but there is also physiological predisposition on how we approach unknown substances. This is where the survival element of the flavour kicks in – we approach the food with caution, smell it, take a good look at it and take a slow concentrated bite, deciding whether to swallow or spit out. The verdict “It tastes like chicken” leads to a happy ending exotic dinner. The sense of liking and dislike is connected to previous patterns – the more familiar it is, more likely it is to be safe and accepted. And this includes the globally most familiar corporal flavours, who spend enormous amounts of time and money for development of flavour formulas. Flavour branding is very profitable and there is nothing left to randomness to make sure the customers get what they want/expect/crave, at predisposition of lowest production costs. The branded packaging triggers the same taste memory with one look and taking a bite never fails, the taste is always the same as it should be. I recently had my madeleine flashback with Bazooka chewing gum taking me back to 1980s in a scorching hot and noisy Fiat 126. The gum was the same in present time – at beginning teeth breaking hard and super sweet for 30 seconds and 2 minutes later tasteless rubber, yet the childhood taste to last forever.

Let’s return back to meeting unknown tastes. If you do get to bite a bitter pill at first encounter, the chances of giving the pungent delicacy another chance are fairly low. A very efficient way to prevent coyotes from feasting on sheep, have been done by serving them sheeps marinated in lithium chloride – a dressing with guaranteed severe sickness. After “mouton en marinadée” the coyotes decided to stay away from the sheep bistro and happily settle with what regular daily menu has to offer. Again referring to popular commercial foods, when you find yourself at the other side of the planet after a several session of sightseeing the lavatories, there is only one thing you feel is safe enough to save you. Even though at home McDonald’s is ultimate example of unhealthy junk food, when confronted in unfamiliar situation, burgers smell with assuring smell of satisfaction with no unpleasant surprises. It’s our brains effort to protect us, and the corporations have it all sorted out and take advantage of it strategically.

As assuring and safe the familiar things might be, our instincts are in constant search for new tastes, as various means wider spectrum of nutrition. Not every first bite ends with final “yuck”. Nobody never liked it’s first olive, check Youtube you’ll find a bunch of videos of kid’s faces grinning in disgust over an olive. It is the same with whiskey or gorgonzola cheese, and yet these are known as one of the ultimate delicacies. These foods are unlikely to be enjoyed by someone who hasn’t had substantial exposure to it. It is usually the social setting that give us the necessary repeated exposure to adapt to certain flavours. The process of acquiring a taste can involve developmental maturation, genetics, family example, and biochemical reward properties of foods. For example the recently discovered fifth taste called umami is known as the taste of glutamate, an amino acid found throughout the human body and in protein-containing foods. To imagine savory taste, think of chicken broth or Parmesan cheese. Studies have revealed that this separate taste receptor has perhaps evolved to ensure adequate consumption of protein.

By the way, ‪Monosodium glutamate aka.‬ E621 is one of the most widespread food additives in instant soups and prepared meals. MSG can enhance other taste-active compounds, improving the overall taste of certain foods. To sum up it is added to food products to increase the liking, literally getting you hooked up on specific flavour you can only reach with a certain bag or box. Since we are already discussing wiring the brain with taste – glutamates are important neurotransmitters in the human brain, which are playing a key element in learning and memory. There is an ongoing study by neurologists about possible damaging side-effects of MSG. How come nobody prevents this additives from being put on shelves?

Few years ago there was a meeting of crucial men leading 11 largest food companies. The doctors started to warn about the obesity problems and health issues and appealed to the food companies, to change the formulas. The owner of the biggest company relaying on sugary product success, declared, that he is not going to change the formulas which are bringing the company huge success. As appalled as some were by the ignorant and profit centered statement, he was right. It is not up to companies to change in order to have a change in the society – they offer what we demand and confirm our demands by purchase.

 In modern wilderness our tastes sensors do not necessarily warn us from what is bad for us. As we are bombarded with information about the good and bad food, it seems that choosing foods and making food preferences is more and more a rational cognitive act based on scientific facts and packaging declarations. The mind is a moldable tissue which is able to rewire itself throughout time in according to the way we focus our attention. Just as we spread our ability to think by taking on new knowledges experiences our ability to recognize quality develops with conscious research. The food preferences influence thinking and consequently personality, memories and finally life. It is our decision whether we are letting ourselves be guided inside the familiarity of the known comfort zones or push through, experience and in time, train the mind to seek and really differ good from bad.

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honey panna cotta
Uncategorized

Plate Inspiration

Here is a recent collaboration with beautiful ceramics from Dasa’s Pottery.

The good thing about hand-made dishes is that they are not like blank canvas, but they already have a story, so you need to keep with it when you fill them up. These were great, as I usually start thinking about the dish when I already have a recipe.

This time the dishes were the source of inspiration, each one found their perfect meal spring meal: Terracota clay with soft blue glaze found place for grilled mushrooms with wild garlic and pancetta, colourful first leaves salad just fit in big beige bowl and milk panna cotta with honey and bee pollen.

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Mushrooms with Wild Garlic and Pancetta

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First spring salad

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Milk Panna Cotta with Honey & Bee Pollen

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The ultimate community food

When faced with community subject I had a problem visualizing it in food terms. I wanted to avoid people in the pictures, which is difficult with the social aspect of the term. When discussing it with the editor, we realized that food which is prepared for large groups of people seems so old, almost a vintage habit. Željka, the editor,  was fascinated with big pots with large handles, which is so uncommon in today’s presentation of food. My social sciences brain light up with conclusion that this is actually a wonderful representation of growing individualization over time. “Imagine,” said Željka, “some people feel slicing one big cake is barbaric and prefer their own individual tinny cakes.”

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This led me to thinking what are the foods that we still do share today? Which are socially acceptable forms of sharing a plate or a bowl? I started paying attention to social occasions involving food – family gatherings, parties, cultural events and joined household. What was present in every single social food sharing were the leftovers, or better say a leftover. The last final piece of food stranded on desolated tables.

 My grandma has an expression for it “zhenir stick”, and it stands for the last final piece remaining at the end of the meal, because everybody deliberately ignores it as a courtesy of giving it up for others, showing our polite generous skills. Imagine the idiot grabbing the final piece of cake without any hesitation. How rude, selfish and impolite gesture. Despite all the individualization the last final piece is still where we stop and consider our fellow companions. Or is it just a social ritual well engraved in our manners? Eihter way, it is the food which relates to everybody surrounding it.

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Let’s see what happens to the unfortunate last pieces. Usually these are the least desired pieces: crusty, ugly, small or simply cold. Left for the end, they suddenly become everybody’s favourite piece, but remain untouched. If the temptation is too big some might check all present if nobody really, but really won’t have it. We forgive this question to children, but grown ups receive “Nooo, go ahead you have it” with subtitles “Fine you have it, greedy bastard”. In case greedy bastards are absent at the table, there are also semi greedy bastards, who will take the final piece but comfort their bad conscience by sharing it with others. And this is how the final piece becomes the ultimate community food – individual portion shared with whole community.

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It is such a common everyday gesture, we hardly even notice it. But when you start thinking about it and observe it, you realise the food is still a strong bond that keeps us together. Sure the boundaries of “my food-your food” are strict, but food still carries rituals and relationships together. We feel uncomfortable eating in presence of a person who doesn’t eat, despite the fact that they already ate, are vegans or on what ever diet to keep them away from sharing your food. If nothing else eating together is like being partners in crime, with food smells, mouthful talking and specks of greens between your teeth. You may like your tiny little cake all for yourself, but it still tastes better when you eat it in a good company.

This Article was first published in Mrvica magazine.

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failure_macaroons
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Failures of progress

I have a confession to make: I suck at baking. The fact that I spend a fair amount of time talking, writing and photographing food, people get the impression I’m the right person to ask about baking tricks for walnut roll. I’ve never done one, to be honest don’t dare to make it. It would be a disaster of epic proportions, I can already see the oozing bubbly filling dripping from bumpy shaped alien form. And the sight of yet another baking failure gets me furious, despite being fairly calm. Over my abundant “disaster” experience I’ve learned the best thing to do is to shuck everything in trash, clean the kitchen (basically, pretend it didn’t happen) and start all over on something safe. Eating a disaster, which is still edible, results in dull pain in the stomach, like swallowing your own anger and shame. I make effort to use quality ingredients and don’t want to discard food, which pisses me off even more. Still, I advise to discard and go on, where as Julia Child would cheerfully smile and try to save what is left of unfortunate dish: “Never apologize, be fearless”, she would sing with her high pitch phlegmatic voice.

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Lemon polenta cake fail and double macarons fail.

 

It’s true, kitchen requires guts and determination. Trial and error under a vast array of changing variables. And you need to test and experience all of them. Some can be learned from books others by mentors, but there are lessons you must have by yourself. To make progress, you have to have failures. It’s essential element of progress, and the sooner you accept that, the better. To become successful in any discipline, the thing that matters the most is your attitude. Not so much talent and abilities, those are extenuating circumstances. Unfortunately there are many people with no talent who get to the spotlight because of their sheer determination.

So please fail, do not let it discourage you, although it can be quite deflating. Researching this topic I found a very therapeutic exercise – google image search “baking fail”. After you had your share of laugh, proceed to video search, and somewhere in there should be a video of Gordon Ramsay bleeding all over Ellen show. Apparently he hasn’t cut himself for 10 years, but I bet he did it quite a few times as a sous chef. I happen to have one of Ramsay’s cookbooks, there is a fantastic portrait of him covering his face with his hands followed by a quote: “We learn only by making mistakes, so don’t be afraid of them, I still fail and still learn new things – that doesn’t stop me and it shouldn’t stop you. Keep going until you lose that fear.”

But failure is only useful if you know where and why you failed, this is where progress happens. Well, not necessarily, I always and constantly fail for the same reason – I cannot resist the urge to change something in the recipe. Like I’m completely unaware of the complex chemical and physical magic behind each recipe. Like that the different oven, flour, baking pan, longitude and altitude are not enough. No, I change flours, sweeteners,… who cares if I’m substituting powder with liquid, I’ll add another egg. Ever since I’m baking gluten free, the failures tripled.

But I still bake, I love it actually. It’s the experiment component behind it that gets me. Similar to developing a photo, baking is where you insert your effort in the equation and leave the magic to do the rest. I always sit in front of the oven in the first and last minutes of baking, like observing image appearing in the developer fluid. When I get it right the happiness and matching pride is immense – I came up with this and it works. So there is purpose in the many cakes that ended in the trash, here I quote Edison: “I didn’t fail, I found 10.000 ways that don’t work.” This is the third quote used in this article, don’t recall doing that since my academic years. It’s no coincidence, I quoted so many exceptional people on the subject of failure. And Edison was a shmuck, a clever shmuck, and yet his greatest mistake was that he fired Tesla, but that’s another story full of failures on the way to reach grand new discoveries. So again, please fail, as much as you can.

 

This article was first published in Mrvica magazine.

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Recipes

Tahini Miso Cookies

Don’t like to use the word fusion, because it sounds like something futuristic and modern, but the idea behind tese cookies is that they use Japanese ingredients in a form that is not tipical for their cuisine, but very much adored here in Europe. These are sort of version of english tea biscuits and are ment to be minimal and simple but complicate with individual complexity of ingredients. For example – adding salt with miso. Because it’s creamy like tahini, and brings a kind of gentler, deeper saltness. Orange peel and ginger for the zing, to uplift the heavy, slobby grease of tahini. And sesame seeds as garnish on top are crucial, but have to be mildly roasted (not too browned, as they get bitter) in advance to bring the full nutty aroma.

I like to keep the list of ingredients to the minimum and not over complicate, but these have to have all this inside to be perfect. You should know these are not very sweet, only a hint of sweetness, so they fall in the adult cookie category. Pair them with genmaicha tea, it’s nutty aroma complements them really nice.

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Tahini Miso Cookies

  • 1 cup rice flour
  • 1 egg
  • 4 tbsp tahini
  • 2 tbsp white miso paste (if you use stronger and darker miso paste use only generous 1 tbsp)
  • 3 tbsp maple syrup
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • Orange zest from one orange
  • 1/2 tbsp grated fresh ginger
  • 1 tbsp sesame seeds, gently roast till you can smell the aroma

Preheat the oven to 200°C (400 F). Mix flour and baking powder separately from the wet ingredients. Combine both mixes, if to dry add a splash of water. Form into a ball of dough. You can substitute olive oil for butter, to get more shortbread like texture. If you used butter chill the dough for at least an hour. If using olive oil begin with forming the dough in small balls. Dip each ball in roasted sesame seeds and flatten the ball to form a nice even round cookie. Bake for 20 minutes.

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Recipes

Why the need to go all across the planet?

That’s what my mom asks when announcing trips to Asia. To be honest, that’s what I’m asking myself the day before leaving. Soon as I get on the plane the doubts are gone, I’m in observing mode. The greatest thing about travel is the enhancing of the senses. Becoming present in the moment by simply observing the surroundings. At home knowing the everydayness places and routines is a blessing time savior, but drifting through gets automated and we stop to pay attention or question the details around us. But when you land yourself all the way there in a completely new setting you wonder at electric poles and charm the dirtiness of the city chaos.

I have a strong bond to local flavours and recipes, but my heart belongs to Asian food. Best served locally where the street have the omnipresent durian smell, eating on pavement petite plastic chairs and where markets are still very much alive and kicking. My latest was a trip to Vietnam, and their food stands a new standard to fresh. With 70% of the population working as farmers, the markets are very busy places and people still have the habit to buy meat kicking for their meals. Also what fascinated me, were that the tables of locals eating out: bunch of pots and plates with fresh garnishes on the table with everybody sharing everything and combining different dishes in one small bowl, where you combine each perfect bite.

One of our national staple foods is beef noodle soup, but phở bò is a step higher with bold spices and adding meat and garnish at the end in order to preserve the texture and taste. Quail eggs were a revelation as well, as I never use them at home, but you see them everywhere in Vietnam. The tiny little egg is a perfect addition to nutritious soup plus they are the most fotogenic ingredient ever. So đac Biet it is – all included, phở galore.

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 Pho Gà đac Biet

For the broth:

3,5 l cold water

1 whole chicken cut in peices
1 whole onion, unpeeled
Big chunk of ginger, unpeeled

1 tbsp sugar and 1 tsp salt
2 tbsp fish sauce

Rice noodles (grab a bunch with your hand as much as you can hold)

Broth dry spices:
2 tbsp whole coriander seeds
4 whole cloves
2 whole star anise

Garnish:

2 quail eggs per person
bunch of cilantro or basil tops and green spring onion chopped

The point is to make broth clear and intense in flavor. The trick is to parboil the chicken to get rid of the impurities. Have 2 big pots ob boiling water ready. Dunk the pieces of chicken in one for 5 minutes, then transfer to the cooking pot. Next move to charring the ginger and onion for a naturally sweeten and enhance their flavor. You can do it directly on the flame or place them on the he top rack in the oven. Set to broil on high for 15 minutes. Turn the onion and ginger occasionally, to get an even char. The skin should get black and the onion/ginger soft. After cooling, rub to get the charred skin off carefully, the black skin would make the soup bitter.

Put in pot with cooking chicken covering with the lid. Turn heat to high to boil, then immediately turn heat to low. Lift lid up so that steam can escape. After 15 minutes, remove the chicken breasts and set aside. Skim the surface of any impurities in the broth, skimming every 20 minutes to get a clear broth. Simmer for 1,5 hours, in the meantime taste and adjust seasoning with fish sauce and or sugar. In the last 20 minutes of cooking add roasted dry spices. Put them in tea filter, so you can quickly remove them, or they will make the soup bitter.

Strain the broth, discard solids. Soak noodles as per directions on package and cook quail eggs for 2,5 minutes. Ladle broth, add shredded chicken breast and soaked noodles in each bowl. Have garnish ready to add according to individual taste preferences.

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