Tacos, Chemistry, and Everything In Between

This weekend was the first time in months that I’ve been truly excited about a cooking project. There wasn’t a lot of build up or fuss. No “OMG this is one of my favorite recipes! This is going to be so intense.” I saw a recipe on Serious Eats for sous vide carnitas, shared it with a friend, then thought, “Hey, I could just make this for myself.”

That first recipe linked to a salsa recipe I wanted to try. At which point I decided I should probably just make my own tortillas because I’ve heard it’s really easy. And it seemed reasonable to throw in a recipe for churros with chocolate dipping sauce while I was at it.

The meal plan came together easily and it had everything I look forward to in a cooking project:

  • multiple recipes across different time domains (24 hour low-and-slow cooking of the meat, several hours of rest time for the tortilla dough, 30 minutes of continuous work for the salsa),
  • a variety of cooking techniques (sous vide, broiling, pan frying, deep frying),
  • new-to-me ingredients (whole pork shoulder, lard for the tortillas),
  • and, in the end, I’d get to enjoy one of my favorite foods: tacos!

When everything was mostly ready, I sliced some radishes for garnish. I took a bite of the crisp white flesh, winced at the bitter taste, and asked, “Ugh, why am I adding this? It’s gross. Why do LA taco trucks always serve radishes in a bag with onions and cilantro?”

Radishes are bright red. That’s visually appealing, against the neutral tortilla, brown meat, and green cilantro leaves. They are firm and crunchy. Also good, in contrast with the soft tortilla and the tender bite of the meat. They are bitter. Which by itself seems bad, but the slices don’t taste bitter in a taco.

And that’s when it hit me like a bag of bricks.

This is how flavor works. 

Everything I had cooked that evening built up to this taste combination, a taco that was greater than the sum of its parts. Fresh, warm, chewy tortillas are just flour and lard: sweet starches and unctuous fats. The meat provides umami, as well as a crispy texture. The salsa gives a kick of acidity and spice. Last but not least, the cilantro and radishes are both bitter and crisp. It all works together.

 

The scientific study of taste is fascinating.

Humans have been writing about it forever. (Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste might be the best known example of the genre in Western literature.) There’s still some disagreement about what chemicals we can distinctly perceive with our tongues, but the general consensus now points to 6 groups: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, savory (umami), and fatty. These tastes combine with smells and sensations of texture to create the overall perception of flavor, further compounded with visual appearance and environmental cues in our experience of food.

In theory, with this information (or some slight variation on it), you can create balanced dishes. Use salt to balance out bitterness and, by contrast, highlight sweetness. Use bitter ingredients to cut through foods that seem too rich, and so on. Because this theory is based in physiology, the implications are evident across time and culture. Every country has its version of a taco, or bao, or bun, or sandwich. Momofuku’s famous pork bun has basically the same components as my taco. (Though not all cultures define “balance” the same way: Western cooks are more likely to group similar flavors while beloved Eastern dishes have less overlap.)

As you become more familiar with the theory (“savor it, analyze it, discuss it with companions” said Julia Child), you can expand beyond individual dishes to coordinate multi-course meals that create a “logical journey.” It’s an act of artistic creation rather than rote memorization. (The parallels with graduate research are uncanny. Probably why so many of my grad school friends like to cook.)

I probably should have realized this a long time ago. I read food magazines and books. I know about David Chang’s “Unified Theory” and I kind of get what he’s saying. I watch cooking shows like Chef’s Table where they talk about flavor pairings all the time.

But I didn’t get it. I could read everything there was to read and still not get it. I could spend years eating tacos made by other people, loving the flavor, without ever understanding how it works. It’s the difference between a student in organic chemistry, following the professor’s procedures on the white board, and a synthetic chemist who knows how to design molecules. You can appreciate the result – a good yield of product for an amateur chemist, a tasty dish for an aspiring cook – without any real intuition for the process. It’s the process of making things yourself that provides the biggest breakthroughs.

So, long story short, tacos are magic. Make and eat them often for best results.

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Recipes:

 

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