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Jun 14, 2010 11:55 AM

"Punched-Up" Food and Wine

Last night, my wife and I ordered some Shoyu Ramen at a Japanese noodle restaurant in Port Townsend, Washington. My wife complained about the “blandness” of the dish, and immediately began “doctoring” her portion with various condiments. This brought to mind a thread about the Shio and Shoyu Ramen at Yakyudori Ramen in San Diego, started by Chowhound-extraordinaire “cgfan.” One of the subsequent posters in this thread complained that the Shio Ramen was bland. Cgfan responded, “You really want to avoid overseasoning a Shio broth, as it is particularly easy to upset its carefully crafted balance.” Cgfan subsequently commented that Shio and Shoyu broths “are all about lightness and clarity.”

This got me thinking about the current trend favoring “punched-up” flavors in food and wine. In the “New World” vs. “Old World” dichotomy between styles of wine, current favor seems tilted toward the more extracted, fruit-forward New World style, though Old World advocates, like me, are still around. The same seems true for current trends in food, with big assertive flavors winning out over more restrained and subtle flavors. Even the best prepared Cantonese food is often dismissed as “bland,” with Szechuan food winning the general popularity contest. Other examples abound. When did this trend start? Has is always been there, or is it ascending? If it exists, what is causing the cultural shift to preferring bigger, bolder flavors? Is it related to the general decline in attention span and appreciation of detail that is reflected in superficial sound bites vs. detailed news reports, the ubiquity of communicating in short bursts of words through text messaging and tweets vs. longer, more detailed forms of communication, and the emphasis on extravagant production values in musical entertainment where the music is often overwhelmed by light effects, dancers, etc.?

For the record, in my own kitchen, I used to prepare much more complex dishes than I do at present. I have left behind what I refer to as the “show-off” period of my cooking in favor of spending more time finding the very best ingredients and trying to highlight them in relative simple preparations that “don’t screw them up” or overshadow them. For example, I would never consider drowning my beloved Pacific Northwest oysters on the half shall in lemon juice, mignonette sauce, or Tabasco. I eat mine entirely unadorned to fully appreciate the subtle differences in flavors between oysters from different areas, different water conditions, and different seasons. The natural liquor of a fresh oyster is all the embellishment I need. In short, for me, less is usually more. But it seems to me that I’m in the minority, and that the majority of people prefer “punched-up” rather than “punched-down” flavors. Am I wrong?

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  1. No, Tom, I'm with you.

    The essence of modern British cuisine (both restaurant and home) is one of simplification, after years of prissy food, often overly influenced by the foods of other countries. we now returning to much more straightforward preparations. Top quality seasonal ingredients cooked with the minimum of them beign messed/cheffed with. No doubt, we'll be in for another period of foreign visitors to the UK saying our food is too bland to their tastes. Good!

    2 Replies
    1. re: Harters

      So the UK has moved on from fusion to fission? Even more basic than molecular gastronomy.

      I am guilty of being a punch-drunk notch-kicker. I hover over my pans with a "what does this need?" look, contemplating fish-sauce in my stew, or lemon zest on the fish.

      1. re: Paulustrious

        Apart from a few places like the Fat Duck (now listed as 3rd best restaurant in the world - roll on 5 August), I reckon molecular has pretty much had its day in the UK. More or less strangled at birth. A definite return to "proper" cooking, even at Michelin star level.

    2. Based on absolutely nothing, I'm going to say that much of the blame lies with tv chefs, specifically ones like Emeril LaGasse and Rachael Ray who are very scream-y: Bam! Yummo! Maybe that makes people feel that food should be loud, i.e. spicy, crunchy, or otherwise attention-getting.

      1. I wonder, sometimes, if it also has to do with region. Harters is talking about a growing appreciation of the seasonal and local in Britain-- something I completely appreciate, especially when it comes to things like Arbroath smokies, or the arrival of more consistent smoked fish in my village.
        But as for the charge of bland, it's also here: I regularly gather with a group of Americans (from the Pac NW, Indians and Europeans) and we all grouse about the lack of flavour, seasoning, and variety in our village. Meanwhile, friends from the Midlands and, interestingly enough, the US midwest, kvell over the restaurants here.
        I actually don't know what I'm getting at, but I'm interested in this: are regions helping to cultivate supertasters who are far more sensitive to seasoning, while others go mad for lack of taste?

        3 Replies
        1. re: Lizard

          There may be something regional that feeds the expectations or, alternatively, doesnt. Say you can buy great tasting local lamb (mine comes from an organic farm 75 miles away in North Lancashire). I really don't want to muck about with it and risk spoiling the taste so, almost but not entirely, I'm going to cook that simply (under the grill or in the ridged pan). If the lamb's not so great in another region folk might want to fancy it up to enhance the taste.

          Makes sort of sense to me. Or I may be talking complete bollocks.

          1. re: Harters

            << Or I may be talking complete bollocks. >>

            One of my favourite foods. Lightly breaded, pan fried.

            And I try to avoid having my bollocks punched up.

            1. re: Paulustrious

              Brings a tear to the eye just thinking of it

        2. I'm a big believer that "less is more." I punched-up my food for years but what was I really doing? Adding salt and all manner of seasonings "just 'cause they're there."

          I get a lot of mileage these days by moderating the amount of spices I use in a dish, moderating the amount of garlic (and not putting it in *every darned thing*) and using tricks like that. More often than not my sauces will contain an acid component and a bit of sweetness in lieu of the massive amount of salt I used to use. And, finally, there's a time and a place for stuff like chili flakes, Sichuan peppers and Sriracha sauce -- but not in nearly everything.

          I've been experimenting with some real old-fashioned flavors recently (molasses in various dishes like roast pork or pork and beans), horseradish in everything from salads to a hot white sauce for brisket, and concentrated stocks made into sauces for the dinner roast.

          As for the British cuisine -- isn't Great Britain like anywhere else; there are "full-flavor" cooks and then there're those who prefer to let the ingredients shine? It's the same with U.S. home cooks; some of the ones most famous for their home cuisine really don't use that much *intensity* of flavor at all; it's the way the flavors combine to get an effect on the palate that really matters.

          And if one's palate is so burnt-out that all one can appreciate is gallons of soy, Sriracha, hot pepper, and garlic, then perhaps it's time to un-learn that need for flavor and learn to go after the understated.

          2 Replies
          1. re: shaogo

            Count me in as someone who is all but addicted to hot (spicy, like, seriously spicy) food, especially of Asian provenance. Yes, that is a very, very general & broad stroke for a large number of cuisines, but when I eat anything "Asian", I want it to hurt. This might also be because I am only a relatively recent convert to spicy food - Germany is not exactly known for pushing the limits of flavor, at least it wasn't in the 70s and 80s, and most of its dishes aren't known for their hotness.

            I can appreciate the subtle flavors of a well-balanced pho broth, with all those nuances of the various herbs & spices. BUT.... I'd much rather have a Sichuan hot pot or a head-clearing tom yum.

            I also probably use more garlic than is good for me (or the people around me), but I'm trying to ease up on that -- a little goes a long way.

            In general, tho, I'm a big flavor kinda gal, especially when it comes to my own cooking. That doesn't mean that the subtleties of French or other haute cuisine, or simply the different tastes of oyster varieties are lost on me, and I don't EVER use hot sauce on oysters. Maybe a quick spritz of lemon.

            1. re: shaogo

              I think garlic is a great example. I'm generally a recipe follower. It used to be that if a recipe called for one clove of garlic, I scoffed at that and boosted it WAY up. Over time as I've become a better diner and cook, I've come to appreciate the more subtle flavors. When I have a really wow dish, its wow-ness is generally because of a layering of subtle flavors. (Probably didn't describe that well.) I've also come to dislike really, really hot/spicy food as I feel like the flavors of the rest of the dish get overwhelmed by the heat. There's a current thread about lobster and someone suggested garlic butter. I would never use that because of the mild taste of lobster.

              I think this is an interesting thread.

            2. Why does it have to be either / or? Can't someone relish perfectly fresh pan-roasted halibut one night and pungent camarones al mojo de ajo the next? Does appreciation of the structure of a good Bordeaux preclude enjoyment of a jammy Zinfandel? I certainly hope not.

              The "punch it up" movement is not recent (or even modern). Just open a copy of Escoffier or LaRousse for clear examples of the "more is more" theory of cooking. For that matter, “The Art of Cooking” by Apicius contained over-the-top recipes from ancient Rome.

              Simple cooking has always been with us, too, but for a long time it was looked down upon by self-proclaimed epicures. In the US, the emphasis on ingredients rather than technique in haute cuisine really came to the forefront in the '60s, although it took a while to catch on (and still isn't universally appreciated - search the San Francisco Bay Area board for complaints about how the food at Chez Panisse is "boring and bland").

              As for me, I'm a big fan of great ingredients, simply prepared. But I also enjoy foods that are complex, spicy, and/or elaborate. And I'm glad I don't have to pick one type over the other.

              1 Reply
              1. re: alanbarnes

                Very nicely put, Alan. My OP was directed at those who reflexively rule out subtle and non-assertive flavors as "bland." But I didn't mean to categorically disparage bold, assertive flavors. There's clearly a place for both. For example, I love the authentically hot, spicy Southern Thai dishes at Jitlada in Los Angeles and the complexly spicy Issan dishes at Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas. But I also appreciate and love the subtlety and balance of a light, clear Shio Ramen broth. At present, most of my diet revolves around simple preparations highlighting the flavor of the main ingredient with only a few grace notes here and there. But, as noted above, I also enjoy the occasional pleasure of an intensely seasoned dish as a counterpoint. And, for the record, I've never complained about "bland" food at Chez Panisse. To the contrary, one of the best desserts I've ever had was at Chez Panisse Café. It consisted of a single Kishu tangerine from Churchill Orchard in the Ojai Valley and three Barhi dates from the Flying Disc Ranch in the Coachella Valley. Nothing was done to embellish or “enhance” them in any way, and the natural flavors completely rocked my world.