Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Tasting Test, Testing Taste

No pictures. I swear.

My 'culinary skills' actually rely heavily on my tasting skills.
I totally trust my tastebuds. Once I have figured out what an ingredient tastes (and smells) like on it's own, I usually can imagine and predict what it would taste like in a dish.

This skill is very useful when the original ingredient is unavailable and I have to substitute. Most usually, I would be able to accurately substitute an ingredient with something or a combination of things that taste almost the same. Take nnisan or Gula Melaka for instance. It's a sweet thing made out of air nira kelapa, the nectar from coconut flowers. If I can't get the real thing, I could substitute it with brown sugar and a little bit of coconut milk or better yet, molasses and coconut milk. (The sweet molasses, not the seafood kind, okay?).
I'm allergic to belacan (evil stinky paste made of fermented prawns), so when a recipe calls for it, I usually substitute with ground dried prawns and a bit of oyster sauce. In sambal belacan (a spicy dip/sauce made primarily with fresh chillies), the belacan can be replaced by a few roasted shallots and garlic. I don't know why, somehow it works.
There are some ingredients though, (spices most usually), that can never be subtituted. Like lemongrass and gallangal... somehow nothing comes close to the real thing.

I also have a good memory of tastes. I can recall stuff I ate when I was a child, how it tasted and how they felt on my tongue. Sometimes in my cooking and eating, I would search for those tastes and cling to them. This was how I discovered the recipe for my grandmother's Ketupat Sotong (Rice Stuffed Squid in creamy sauce). I recalled the taste and smell and discovered that certain combinations of ingredients gave out the same taste and smell, and tried it out. It may not be an accurate recipe (maybe she had a secret ingredient, who knows), but it's close enough for me to be reminded of my childhood and of my grandmother.

Because of my reliance on my taste buds, during the fasting month, sometimes my cooking goes a little bit off. I know what needs to go in, but I have a problem estimating how much should go in without tasting it. Therefore, sometimes my dishes would turn out slightly bland, or slightly on the strong side (too much sugar, or too much spices or too much salt. :P ).

Growing up in a house with 4 other women, getting a hold of a food taster during Ramadhan was never a problem. There would usually be at least one of us who were having a visit from the 'Japanese Army' (or 'The Crimson Tide' as some of you might call it) and would not be fasting. The red flagged person would be the one my mom would ask to taste her dishes. She would ask, "Dah cukup rasa, masam, manis, masin, lemak?", ("Is it sour, sweet, salty, creamy enough?"), then the food taster would tell whether it needed a bit more asam jawa (tamarind) or sugar or salt or santan (coconut milk).

I tried to enlist the help of my kids, but they lack the vocabulary to describe tastes and degrees of it. The boys would go "mmm.. it's yummy!", and I wouldn't know if it's for real or if they're just trying to please me.
"Is it salty enough?" I would ask. "yeah, it's good" they would say.
"Are you sure it doesnt need more salt?" I would press. "Okay maybe just a little bit" they would offer.
"Are you sure????" I would panic.
And they run away scared, whining "I don't knoww...!!!! It's yummmyyyy alreadddyyyy!!"
I would then sigh and give up and just pray for the best.

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