Taste Test: Try Using Chopsticks

Chopsticks

I’ve always been interested in understanding and experiencing food from other cultures in an as authentic a way as possible (albeit no doubt through the heavily filtered/hampered(?) lens of a British set of tastebuds). So when, a few years ago, I was given a nice set of Chinese chopsticks, I decided to learn how to use them and attempt make the action as intuitive to me as using a knife and fork. Why not make it second nature to eat eastern dishes with eastern cutlery?

Five reasons as to why I decided to take on the chopstickery way of life:

 

1. Pragmatics and practicalities: It’s a good skill to have

From a Chinese friend’s New Year party to a pre-cinema pit stop at Wagamama, from time to time we’re issued with chopsticks, or at least the choice of sticks or forks. Facing this question and swaying by natural tendency toward the knife and fork, can generate within me a feeling of slight embarrassment or even apology. Maybe it shouldn’t and I ought to confidently and unashamedly opt for the western approach to eating. Rightly or wrongly, not choosing chopsticks conjures unease and forces me to sheepishly justify my selection of cutlery to the (probably totally ambivalent) waiter. Maybe the positive way of phrasing it is that choosing chopsticks (if only to myself) shows that I’m making the effort to join in with the culture, the cuisine of which I’m consuming.

 

2. Authentics: Eating with chopsticks provides undeniably a more bona fide experience

Okay, arguably at some less than authentic oriental eateries, I’m not really taking part in a faithful cultural experience, rather flavour that is tampered with and diluted for a British audience, so here I’m really talking about your more bespoke, less mainstream establishments. Wouldn’t it be a great, and would not my experience be enriched, when eating at a small family run Japanese restaurant, if I were to learn a few Japanese phrases, ask to eat something a little more unusual and eat with chopsticks? Taking a positive engaged approach to eating like this, leaves me feeling pretty good and the chopsticks played their part.

 

3. Speed of Eating: Very practically, chopsticks mean eating fractionally slower

Again there’s a caveat: lifting the bowl to the mouth and shovelling probably speeds up the process and although rather ungainly, is not a culturally illegitimate way of using chopsticks. However, I’m assuming that most of us would at least start with bowl fixed to the table, politely using chopsticks delicately and independently as ‘pincers’ rather than a ‘shovel’. When adopting this technique, the capacity (in comparison to that of a fork) is small and so I find myself eating at a slightly slower rate, particularly if I’m eating something like noodles or rice. There are a number of reasons pro eating slowly but from a purely experiential perspective, eating more deliberately in this way means I actually tend to enjoy the food more.

 

4. Taste: Using chopsticks makes food taste better

Does it really? Yes. Eat the same Chinese dish twice, once with chopsticks and once with knife and fork, and I’m convinced that the former approach tastes better. Everything else may remain consistent; ingredients, method of preparation, your tastebuds etc. but as the experience is different, at the very least chopsticks provide an enhanced taste experience. Part of it is a confidence/mindset thing, ie if you haven’t bought into using chopsticks regularly and stick to using knives and forks, then you might not be able to gain the experiential benefit and feel only the unfortunate sense of inconvenience when using sticks. Make using them habitual and I’m convinced you’re taste experience will be enhanced.

 

5. The bigger picture: Chopsticks are not merely cutlery, it’s what they represent 

An enhanced experience doesn’t necessarily mean a better taste you might argue. This is where I want to touch on a philosophy or theory which I’m convinced of by virtue of experience (if not via biological fact or by chemical formulaic reasoning):

Taste provides experience and experience affects taste

Few would argue with the first half; if something tastes good it follows that the experience of eating it is enjoyable. However the second part of the sentence is perhaps not so easy to accept, surely unless I’ve burnt my tongue or have the ‘flu taste is fairly absolute so how can it vary depending on what is essentially a feeling or state of mind? I see the reverse engineering behind this equation: I propose that my experience of or associated to a meal will feedback to the tastebuds almost physically affecting the taste.

Picture the scene; you’re at a dinner party, good conversation with friends, it’s Friday after a long week at work, your host cooked a range of tapas dishes to dig in and share. It tastes good right? Unless they’re a shocking cook or I’m being ultra critical. Conversely, I’ve had a rotten Monday, it’s raining and I’m by myself; the food is pretty tasteless, I certainly wouldn’t remember how good it tasted a week later. Surely that’s just an extension of what we already know about taste: it looks and smells great, so it tastes great. It’s coloured blue and usually it’s reddy orange; it tastes weird.

Good experience leads to better taste. Or at the very least the perception of taste is enhanced if I enjoy the experience more.

It’s quack medicine and at best and based on the musings of an experimentalist but embrace the chopsticks and eastern culture as you eat; enjoy learning how to use this form of cutlery, eat slow, enjoy the authenticity of the experience, ditch the knife and fork and you will tangibly taste the difference.

I have now got to a point where I am possibly using chopsticks as often as I would a knife a fork, or there abouts and although it has become a distinctly utilitarian part of my life, I genuinely believe that through the medium of chopsticks and what they represent, my food exploration has become much more varied, enriched and hopefully more authentic experience.

Taste Test: Try Using a Teaspoon

Taste with a Teaspoon

The last time I followed a recipe was 3 years ago. My teaspoon is my recipe book. A reactive recipe book where ingredients and method vary greatly depending on how I feel. Depending on the day.

I might have a good idea as to what I want to achieve as I wok up my stir fry this evening, but I don’t want it to be limited to Nigel Slater’s Thai slant or Rick Stein’s Oriental perspective. Today it’s pork and noodles and I want it to meet the need of my taste buds. Today’s taste buds.

The meat is on the heat and I’m kicking it off with a little sesame oil. Once it’s sealed it’s time to add the first layer of flavour. Cumin, cinnamon, all spice and fresh ginger presiding over cayenne today. Like I said, I have today’s preferences in mind, and the order of the day is warmth and not heat.  One minute and the veg goes into the wok. I’m now thinking about sauce and the second layer of flavour: honey and light soy (that’s my stock). But I need to check that I’m following today’s ‘recipe’; I need my teaspoon. Stir and taste. I’m looking for sweetness, richness and the limited warmth of ginger and cinnamon (I don’t really need to taste the cumin, it’s serving a greater purpose, subservient to and supporting of the ginger).

I’ve only been adding a little at a time so I know that I’ll be in the right flavour ball park, but the balance isn’t there yet. The salt from the soy is permeating too strongly, more honey necessary. Stir and taste again. Good, better, it’s balancing out.

The noodles need to be added now, I’m conscious of time, the veg doesn’t need long. I haven’t added any more flavour since the last taste test but I’ve given it time to blend and develop so I’ll taste again.

Today is all about encouraging the warmth of ginger and it’s not coming through, so I’ll add a little more (I chopped it finely to give it a fighting chance of finding its way through the dish in a minute or two). Taste. That’s Layer Two complete.

Now a splash of rice wine vinegar, just a dash, enough to deglaze and add slight edge of sharpness (not too much or I’ll overpower the dish with acid). Taste. Dark soy for colour. Taste. Honey to re-balance. Taste. Perfect.

A stir fry like this will take around 7 minutes, typically I’d use my ‘recipe book’, around ten times. Probably around the same number of times a BBC Good Food website would be consulted and checked. Ok so my teaspoon is reactionary, experimental and maybe even a slightly risky approach to creating a dish but it was all the direction I needed and it’s given me the flavour of the moment.

I’m not advocating tearing up your “I’m Jamie Oliver and this is how I cook a three course meal in two minutes”. I’m not saying that the “Hairy Bikers’ guide to cooking in Geordie” can’t inspire. What I am saying is that the smallest of spoons can help generate the most exciting of dishes and create the fullest of flavours.

Next time you sizzle a stir fry, cook a casserole or prep a pasta sauce, try closing the recipe book and arm yourself with the humble teaspoon.

Store bought sauces vs M.I.Y. (Mix It Yourself)

I have a bit of a split personality when it comes to food. Sometimes I just want to get meals out of the way, and eat really quickly – and I don’t care what I eat. This is often the case for breakfast on weekdays, where I just want to get on with work (but get properly fuelled) – so I usually go for an oatmeal-in-a-mug arrangement.

At other times I just want to take things slowly and put the meal together properly – and it doesn’t matter how long it takes to cook. This usually applies on the weekends and sometimes in the evening too; when I want something satisfying, tasty, and interesting to eat.

So there’s often a trade off between packet-sauces and ingredients-based sauces. A typical example would be a stir-fry sauce: a brownish-liquid with a claim to be oyster sauce or plum sauce or hoisin sauce. I honestly couldn’t identify them on a taste test.

However, putting them together from ingredients is much more satisfying. So yesterday my meal plan subscription (they provide fresh ingredients and you do the cooking – just not the deciding or the shopping) gave me what was essentially a stir-fry. It was a really complex affair with cornflour on the beef and all sorts of other preparation, but the key thing here was the sauce. It had a bunch of ingredients:

  • Light soy sauce
  • Chinese 5 spice
  • Muscvado sugar
  • Beef stock
  • Water
  • Squeeze of lime juice

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How much better is that than a store-bought packet! You have good control as to what goes in (let’s face it, who has read an ingredients list and understood every single ingredient?), and there is more likelihood of having individual characteristics of each of the ingredients coming through. So rather than being a gloopy generic flavour, you get hints of lime and the five spices and saltiness and so on. And it taught me a little bit about sauces too, something I don’t know enough about. It was completely worth the extra 10 or so minutes it took to assemble the ingredients rather than open a packet.

So I resolve: next time I make a stir fry, I’m going to look into making it from scratch.

And the main ingredient is…aubergine

I absolutely love Japanese food – when done properly. So when I am given food from Japan, I am usually excited, unless it’s NattōIn this case I was given something I’d never had before – an aubergine-based meal. Literally the main ingredient was aubergine.

This may not sound that crazy to you, but until now an aubergine has never been an exciting thing for me – I’ll eat it, mostly happily, but it has a slight bitterness to it which is just a tad unpleasant and the texture can be a bit unusual. So all the better that I try it out and give it a chance to win me over, as I love doing things with ingredients that I’m not used to.

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