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.