All savoury dishes are salty. A dish that tastes purely of salt without the savoury is unlovable rather like that mouthful of sea-water accidently swallowed on a sea-side holiday. Similarly, a savoury meal without any salt added is a sad culinary affair. Salt and savoury are like the ying and yang of the taste emporium, they are two sides of the same coin, the left hand and the right hand; different yet totally dependant on one another to deliver the ultimate taste experience in the realm of salty dishes. A leek soup made with water is the stuff of Victorian workhouses; the proverbial “watery” gruel that is a symbol of derision. Add a simple bone broth and the soup is transformed, as if my magic, into a warm, comfort food perfectly fit to grace the table of Royalty.
Savoury flavours abound in all meat dishes (particularly in bacon), stews, bone-broths and interestingly non-sour fermented foods such as cheeses, cured meats (salami) and cured anchovies. If salt accentuates flavours in bold then savouriness as Michael Polan so poetically states, italicises, the meal. It’s the final glow, the polished sheen, the soft-rounded corner, the je ne c’est quoi of a salty (as opposed to a sweet) dish. It is what every good cook attains to and what the everyday cook can easily achieve if they follow a few simple suggestions set out under the recipes.
Savoury dishes are so delightful precisely because they are, indeed, packed with natural nutrients. It is the serendipitous mingling and bonding together of amino acids, ferments, minerals, vitamins and electrolytes in one happy, harmonious, whole that gives the savoury flavour such an elevated status in the cook’s entire repertoire. Glutamic acid, a key feature of every savoury dish, is by no means the only protagonist on the stage. On it’s own glutamic acid tastes, well, of nothing. It is only when in the presence of other key nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, vitamins and fermented food that it can really flower and deliver that savoury kick we all desire. Savoury dishes, in short, taste so delightful, comforting and endearing precisely because they are an indicator of nutritionally optimal food.
Paul Breslin in his article “An Evolutionary Perspective on Food and Human Taste”, suggests,
“Humans have developed a preference for glutamate taste, perhaps as markers of easily digested protein in slightly aged or cooked meats…..Our strong interest in the taste of free amino acids … may arise from an inclination to ingest fermented foods, including slightly aged and/or cooked meat. This category of food would have multiple advantages to the survival of our species. Fermentation not only provides more ready access to macro- and micronutrients, but it also provides access to probiotic bacteria, which help maintain overall nutritional health, prevent diseases, and fight gastrointestinal infections…. It is the fermentation or aging of these foods that releases glutamate and savoury taste from protein. Thus, our attraction to amino acids, especially glutamate, and savoury taste may be born of a desire for fermented foods and the advantages of the improved nutrition and probiotic bacteria ….”
Happy in the knowledge that savoury foods are delicious precisely because they are nutritious, it would be tempting at this point to finish the discussion on savouriness and move on to our next taste.
Master in the Kitchen, however, has set out to distinguish the real from the fake and sadly there is a new element to the story of savouriness that must be considered and appreciated by the everyday cook when deciding what ingredients to purchase and how to optimise the savoury flavour of their salty dishes.
This new element is the invention of an ersatz savoury flavour enhancer, which many people will have heard of as monosodium glutamate or MSG. An artificial flavour that has raised concerns since the 1960s’s at least and a flavour enhancer that has even given rise to the mythical “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”. In spite of anecdotal evidence and some scientific studies suggesting the harmful effects of MSG, MSG and its hybrids are generally considered safe to consume. It has official approval for use in just about every country in the world – and used it is. In every salty convenience food sold there will be some form of MSG in the final product even if it isn’t listed as such.
Master in the Kitchen concurs with the assumption that no one has ever keeled over dead from eating food in which MSG is present, in the same way that they might were they to eat, say, pure cyanide. Looking at it from a different perspective, however, it could be that we are approaching the MSG question from the wrong angle. The question should not be what MSG does to us that is harmful rather what is it that MSG does NOT do to us that is harmful.
What MSG singularly fails to do is deliver the promised nutrients our body thinks it is ingesting each and every time we happily devour synthetic savoury foods. Paul Breslin has set out quite clearly that, “….our attraction to amino acids, especially glutamate, and savoury taste may be born of a desire for fermented foods and the advantages of the improved nutrition and probiotic bacteria…”
Eating MSG is fine if, as Master in the Kitchen suggests, one grabs the occasional frozen pizza or ready-made sauce from the fridge. It becomes a much bigger problem if one relies predominantly on the industrial cook to provide our weekly diet in the form of convenience foods. Following the logic that flavour and nutrition are a marriage made in heaven then there is nothing more deceiving than a flavouring that mimics our natural desire for healthy foods. MSG and the impossibly large number of children and grand-children it has begotten over the years is the Trojan Horse that allows a person to consume food that is lacking in any basic nutrition. Artificial savoury flavourings are made not in heaven but in hell.
They are the great pretender’s golden bullet that elevates a debased food product to a higher level of savoury deliciousness. MSG is dangerous not because it is necessarily harmful per se (even though the jury is still out on that one) but because it convinces people that mass manufactured food tastes great. A complete manipulation of our senses and a deception, if one thinks about it, of the highest order.
The really good news is that the everyday cook can prepare salty dishes that abound in savoury flavours that are relatively simple to prepare. It just requires knowledge of how simple and basic it actually is.