Crave - - TABLE OF CONTETS - Words David Lai Il­lus­tra­tion Yoyo Le­ung

Hong Kong favourite David Lai on re­fined palates and the im­por­tance of flavour vo­cab­u­lary

One of our favourite Hong Kong cooks, David Lai’s food is at once hon­est, com­fort­ing, and un­pre­ten­tious. At Neigh­bor­hood, his flavours are for­ward but re­strained (think salt-baked chicken with truf­fle and mush­room sauce over rice, and crispy kinki paella) and the ex­e­cu­tion is con­sis­tently flaw­less. Lai is also a lover of local seafood which he serves with a Can­tonese twist at Fish School.

I al­ways tell my cooks that the ge­nius is in the sea­son­ing and that all good cooks have the abil­ity to pro­duce big flavours, re­gard­less of cui­sine. Begin­ner chefs tend to be timid with flavour as they are not sure what they are look­ing for and they are afraid to make mis­takes. I would use the anal­ogy of a stereo and en­cour­age them to “dial up the vol­ume” to the max­i­mum with­out ru­in­ing the speak­ers. If the vol­ume is too low, then we don’t “feel” the mu­sic and, if too loud, then dis­tor­tion takes over as the speak­ers go be­yond its lim­its.

When it comes to tast­ing flavours, hav­ing a re­fined palate has a va­ri­ety of mean­ings. On the ba­sic level, it is be­ing pro­fi­cient at iden­ti­fy­ing dif­fer­ent flavours and the dy­nam­ics of their com­bi­na­tions – sweet, salty, sour, bit­ter, spicy, savoury (umami), cool (mint) and numb­ing (Sichuan pep­per­corns). This is not al­ways as straight­for­ward as it sounds.

Most peo­ple would de­scribe an over-re­duced sauce as be­ing “too salty”, when, in fact, it is overly sat­u­rated with umami. For chefs, this un­der­stand­ing is es­pe­cially im­por­tant be­cause if the food is in­deed too salty then a squeeze of lemon may re­duce that per­cep­tion. But if a sauce is too re­duced then all it needs is water to di­lute the con­cen­tra­tion. Turn­ing sen­sa­tions into words is an art that def­i­nitely gets bet­ter with prac­tice.

On an­other level, hav­ing a re­fined palate means be­ing a gour­mand: hav­ing a fa­mil­iar knowl­edge of dif­fer­ent cuisines and bev­er­ages, their his­tory, their canon­i­cal dishes and how they should taste when prop­erly made. This vast data­base al­lows gour­mands to not only en­joy the sen­sory as­pect of food but also to ap­pre­ci­ate the tech­ni­cal and cul­tural as­pects. It starts with plea­sure and cu­rios­ity – to un­der­stand why we like some­thing – and to then dive deeper for more.

Hav­ing sen­si­tive taste buds does not guar­an­tee good taste. At the end of the day, food is about ex­pe­ri­ence and per­sonal pref­er­ences. Even so-called “ex­pert” gour­mands dis­agree with each other all the time.

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