A Question of Taste
Food and beverage pairings move beyond wine and cheese, beer and pizza, sake and sushi
BY KRISTIAN MACARON PHOTOS BY DOUGLAS MERRIAM
hile we’ve long known that there’s an art to selecting the perfect wine to complement our meals, lately we’ve come to understand that the same art can apply to other beverages and a wide variety of foods. Flavor pairing is, in fact, a science as well as an art, an extraordinarily complex process that relies on principles of chemistry and biology for its success. Beyond the standard matchups we’ve become accustomed to, unlikely marriages such as haute cuisine with beer or snack foods with champagne can prove unexpectedly pleasing. According to sake sommelier and importer Deborah Fleig of Izanami restaurant in Santa Fe, “Scientists have spent a lot of time investigating rheology—the way liquid matter flows—and tribology—how oils and fats lubricate both the food and our mouths as we eat—to understand how these factors affect people’s food preferences.” It turns out that taste and flavor are two very different things, and the difference is crucial when pairing food and beverages. Taste is the collection of the chemical compounds and natural makeup of a food and how it reacts with the chemistry of our bodies. Take basil, cilantro, vanilla, or strawberry—each has an unmistakable natural essence. Flavor is different in that it is a combination of taste alongside the variable and discernible characteristics of our individual palates. Flavor can be sweet (indicating energy-rich nutrients), salty (balance and electrolytes), bitter (naturally occurring toxins), sour (acidity), umami (amino acids), or fatty. The sensation of flavor combines with the natural tastes of ingredients to build an endless world of combinations. We are born with an average of 9,000 taste buds, bundles of sensory cells, which vary in their sensitivity. Some are more attuned to sweetness, while others are more perceptive of bitterness. Chef David Gaspar de Alba of Oni Noodles in Albuquerque says, “All palates are different, so certain pairings might not work for you, but they might give you a direction and you can adjust according to your preference. I am always surprised when I am surrounded by flavors. I’ll be touching an ingredient, get a sip of wine, and without even tasting the ingredient sometimes, just smelling it, it lingers on my palate.” Sometimes it works beautifully and sometimes it doesn’t, which is where experimentation takes off. Michele Padberg, co-owner and sommelier of Vivác Winery in Dixon, New Mexico, says that in her food and wine combinations, the starting point is to highlight flavors. “Ideally, the chef and I can work to create something incredible together. However, some elements
Sake pairing at Izanami at Ten Thousand Waves, Santa Fe. Opening page: Izanami’s Renkon Hasami Age—deep-fried lotus root, chicken, and gyoza sauce. Pair with Seikyo Omachi sake.
like vinegar, which might enhance a particular dish, can fight with the flavors in the wine and need to be replaced with something more wine-friendly. That’s where I find the chefs I love working with most: those that find this dance both a challenge and a camaraderie.” The exchange of flavors during the experience of the meal can vary based on what pairings are offered. Sometimes the beverage will dissolve some flavors of the dish, and sometimes during the “finish”—the flavor on your palate after swallowing—a flavor or two from the dish will return with a surprising satisfaction. These minute experiences, from initial taste to aftertaste, must be considered when developing a perfect match. Gaspar de Alba says, “For me, creating a trendmagazineglobal.com 233