Flavour is the sum-total of the sensory impression formed when we eat any food. It includes the aroma, the taste and even the texture, and thus involves all our senses. It is the most important aspect of food which decides our choice. While a particular colour or texture may induce us to sample a food, it is the flavour that decides whether we will have any more of it. The flavour of any food is as important a factor in quality as its nutritional composition.
Food flavour is intimately related to cooking practices. We like the flavour of foods made in our homes and in our community because they are familiar to us. Thus, the acceptance index of a particular flavour is intimately related to our dietary patterns. If our exposure to certain food flavours has been limited, it is not easy for us to adapt those flavours. Thus, there is a variety of flavours that we may not enjoy.
A variety of materials is used in preparation and processing of food to enhance, blend and alter the natural flavours. An appropriate use can make even an insipid dish into a highly delicious product and there is ample scope of creativity while using various flavouring substances in food preparation.
Salt: Salt is one of the most widely used condiments and is one of the few pure chemicals used in food preparation. It is used to season all kinds of food preparations except sweets and has the unique property of enhancing the flavour of herbs and spices in food preparations.
Acids: Lemon juice, tamarind, vinegar, mango powder, etc., are the acid substances very commonly used to enhance the natural flavours of food and to impart an acidic taste to foods in a natural way.
Herbs and spices: Herbs and spices impart a subtle flavour to foods and their presence is evident by their irresistible aroma, which whets our appetite and also adds zest to otherwise insipid foods. Hence, these are the most important group of flavouring materials in all the cuisines. Spices and herbs come from various parts of plants like fruits, seeds, berries, roots, leaves, etc., and the flavour is due to small amounts of essential oils and organic acids present in a specific part of the plant. Each one of these has a characteristic component which is responsible for its individual flavour.
Flavouring extracts: Flavouring extracts are obtained from spices by extraction with alcohol, steam distillation or by pressing. As these are concentrated solutions of the flavouring agent, a very minute amount is needed to be added to impart the desired flavour and some of the flavouring extracts available are ginger, cardamom, saffron, vanilla, orange, cinnamon, etc.
How to use
Such flavouring agents are added to the food normally towards the end of the preparation. There is no set proportion which is acceptable to all as individual variation is a key factor. Spices may be used in their whole or powdered form. Herbs are normally cut and simmered in hot fat or oil to extract the characteristic flavour before being added to the preparation. As prolonged cooking will cause loss of volatile components, it is advisable to add flavouring material towards the end of any preparation. These materials are very light and a very small amount is needed to impart the flavour and their contribution to improving the palatability of the product is really remarkable.
Monika Seth/Nutritionist and diet consultant specialising in weight loss at Al Raffah Hospital