HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >


What's the perfect dish?

I watch a lot of food shows on PBS, food network, etc. and they make a lot of the fact that a chef's goal in offering creative dishes should be those that contain a sweet, sour, hot and salty component. A new one has been added by the Japanese called "umami" which is a savory component. What dish do you think is a good example of "sweet, sour, salty and hot? And what dishes are an example of "umami"?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. There is no such thing as a perfect dish, though there are great dishes.

    SSSH: pick a Vietnamese dish of your choosing. The success to the cuisine is based on the balance of these four.

    Umami: dashi (katsuobushi + kombu). You can also get this in dried mushrooms, mojamas, Parmesan, tomato and other elements

    I have a sixth one for you to consider: kokumi ("deliciousness")

    2 Replies
    1. re: wattacetti

      I'm not very close to a Vietnamese restaurant and sadly know little to nothing about their cuisine. Are you saying all Vietnamese dishes use these four? And what food would be considered "kokumi"?

      1. re: richburgfoodie

        The basis of Vietnamese cuisine (and much of Southeast Asia) is the harmonious balance between these four. So yes, all Vietnamese dishes that aren't sweets attempt this.

        Since you mention a bit further downthread that you're from the south, I'm going to do a stereotype and consider dry rubs and barbecue sauces. The rubs almost always contain salt, sugar, chile/pepper as base ingredients, so you have sweet, salty and hot. And sauces have a vinegar component in addition to those four. if you have come across a great sauce, you can think of those four elements.

        Barbecue also has meat, which provides a significant umami component to the equation.

        I wrote about kokumi elsewhere, but it's the neurologic trigger that makes you think "delicious" - initial taste and impact, roundness, balance among other sensations. It's based on certain amino acids triggering CaSR. Foods which do this: Gouda cheese, koji (yeast spores used to brew sake and soy sauce, so therefore soy sauce by default), other yeast extracts, maltodextrin. However, any food that's high in certain amino acids will do this.

    2. I think you can experience those flavors and profiles in a number of cuisines. Maybe if you tell us what cuisines you enjoy, we can help you come up examples within those cuisines, or give you ideas as to how to achieve that contrast/balance in the dishes you already enjoy?

      But as to the sweet/sour/salty/hot thing - Thai food is a great place to start to experience that balance and contrast.

      3 Replies
      1. re: inaplasticcup

        "But as to the sweet/sour/salty/hot thing - Thai food is a great place to start to experience that balance and contrast."


        Thai food has all sorts of greatness in it, and despite my wimpy taste buds, I have yet to experience a thai dish that I haven't at least enjoyed.

        1. re: inaplasticcup

          I'm southern so let's start there. If you fried chicken in a nice seasoned coating with lots of salt and chile and put a sweet and sour sauce on it could that be considered the correct type profile?

          1. re: richburgfoodie

            That idea certainly seems to hit all those notes. Wouldn't be unlike some of the chicken wings I've had at Thai places.

            I think what's really great about a good Thai dish is that it hits those notes, but not overwhelmingly or cloyingly so (well, the heat can be overwhelming if your tolerance is low).

            Or here's another example that's fresh in my mind. I made fish tacos on Sunday night with some spicy salsa and crema, and topped off with a spoonful of diced mangos. I got the salty from the light seasoning on the fish and from the salsa, spicy from the chilies in the salsa and the crema, sour also from the tomatoes and lime in the salsa as well as a bit of tang from the crema, and a touch of sweet from the mangos. That dish hit all those notes.

            Now trying to think of more Southern food examples. Interesting exercise...

        2. For sweet, sour, hot and salty combo, I think Southeastern countries like Thai, Vietname and Indonesia know how to create the perfect balance. So much flavor packed into a dish...maybe this is why Thai is my favorite cuisine.

          1. A really good burger :P

            Maple glazed bacon for your sweet and salty, mushrooms for your umami, pickles for your sour and a little sriracha for your spicy if you must :P

            Its not really that hard to find dishes with all the flavor components, you have them all the time and just don't realize it.

            2 Replies
            1. re: twyst

              I started thinking about this more after posting it and if any of you have ever watched Bobby Flay cook on tv you will note that he seems to always try for this balance. If you took away mustard, honey and chile he would be lost. I'm like twyst, this is not as surprising as it seems because many of the foods we take for granted champion this theme. As wattecetti said, bbq usually has that sweet,hot, sour, salty profile. Burgers made Carolina style with chili and slaw fit into that category because you have the spicy chili but then the sweet/sour of the slaw.

              1. re: richburgfoodie

                So true. I think so many of us like it because it hits so many notes and strikes such a nice balance.

            2. "When I'm not near the dish I love, I love the dish I'm near."

              1 Reply
              1. re: beevod

                consider almost any creole or cajun dish ........ jambalaya, gumbo, etoufee ........ all of them have the sweet, hot, salty, bitter flavor profiles. I'm interested in expounding on this with some new additions of well rounded dishes with WOW factors

              2. I don't think there's a perfect dish or a perfect cuisine, but there's a soup I make in the winter that does meet the SSHS requirement and is pretty close to perfect. It's easy, quick and contains the entire dinner in a single bowl. It contains dried Spanish chorizo, onions, vegetable broth, spinach, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and chickpeas. My 16 yo daughter calls it Man Soup because guys seem to like it a lot.

                1. Any well-prepared meal can balance those taste components, though I think richness is also a factor one should consider when building a meal that entices as well as satisfies. Asian dishes are often good examples of this balance as these culinary cultures emphasize the relationship between these flavors, but you can also find good balance of sweet, sour, salty, hot in non-Asian food:
                  Goulasch (sweetness from caramelized tomatoes and onions, sour from red wine vinegar and hot from the paprika)
                  Chicken biscuit (sweetness from honey, hot and sour from Tabasco, salty from the biscuit and batter)
                  Paella (sweetness from vegetables, sour from lemon, salty from seafood, hot from paprika)

                  1 Reply
                  1. The term Umami is constantly misused and misunderstood. It is not a separate entity from these four tastes. It is the combination of all of them in one food source. Also, hot is not one of the tastes, as you listed. It is sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The most obvious is soy sauce, but the taste is also present in many fish. Anyone who has had a very ripe tomato has experienced this too. The sweetness of the flesh, the faint saltiness, the sourness of the seeds and the slight bitter taste of the skin. When cooked the sourness and bitterness comes out and that is why many add carrots to tomato sauces to give it that sweetness and saltiness.

                    I think the perfect dish is a good fish cooked in a francese sauce. You have the sweetness of the butter, the sourness of the lemon, the saltiness of the fish and the bitterness of the wine and capers. Together, no one taste stands out, but they meld perfectly into something special.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: jhopp217

                      You are incorrect about umami. It is a distinct taste - that of glutamate. I don't know whether something was lost in translation from the original Japanese, but that's very much what it currently refers to in English. It doesn't have anything to do with sweet, sour, salty, or bitter.

                    2. What IS the sound of one hand clapping? And, does rain make a sound only when it hits something?

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: mamachef

                        Anything that makes the inner ear vibrate is sound. Sorry, it is less poetic. I think limitations arise when trying to apply words which are limited to tastes and experiences which are not limited to anything close to the same degree. What is umami to one person may be "earthiness" may be called "savioriness" or "meatiness" to another and then how the description is perceived might be something completely different. Whatever. It is limited to ones individual perceptions and ability to describe it. Some say MSG is umami, but can it be broken down and described in different words? Sure. Umami is a convenient way to put a word to something that can very broad. Same with any other tastes as a bite of bitter melon and a bite of a grapefruit rind are different but are both "bitter".

                      2. i agree with those who said that there's no such thing as the "perfect" dish. taste is subjective, and even if *you* might think the SSSH components in a particular preparation are balanced properly, someone else might not.

                        plus you'd also need to address appearance, textures, temperatures...

                        1. The perfect meal for me is eating food produced from my own efforts. Just last week had freshly caught striper bass, swiss chard and salad greens from my backyard garden.

                          1. This one SE Asian condiment has all of the things you're looking for. And it's one of the best multi-purpose sauces ever and one of the best examples of the flavors you're looking for.

                            Fish sauce (Umami, saltiness) + Lime Juice (sour) + Sugar/Honey (Sweet) + chopped chili peppers (hot). I like to also add some herbs and aromatics like cilantro and garlic and jack it up with msg for more umami. It's great on pretty much everything.