Not Too Sweet
My Journey with Food and the Five Basic Tastes
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good appetite, must be in want of food. That’s what Jane Austen said, right? I, like most people, love food. I’m always down to try new restaurants, and if I go to one I’ve been before, I order something I haven’t tried to expand my horizons. There are countless dishes out in the world, but all of them can be broken down into the five basic tastes: bitter, salty, sour, sweet, and umami. In this piece, I’ll go through each of the tastes and share a brief overview of my thoughts on the respective taste, a dish that captures the essence of the taste best in my opinion, and an emotion related to each taste. Grab your forks and spoons, and let’s dig in!
I’m starting with my least favorite of the profiles. I despise anything bitter. Coffee, dark chocolate, kale—all of it. My friends in high school and college were baffled at how I started every morning without any caffeine. I’m convinced that people who enjoy bitter foods are masochists… But to each their own.
When I think of a bitter dish, I immediately go to this lemon rind soup that my mom sometimes makes. It makes my whole body recoil in horror. I haven’t had it since high school, but the sharp tang of lemon rinds steeped in broth is enough to remind me why I don’t like it. When my mom makes it or if we’re given a container of it from an aunt, I’ll always comment, “I’m good, but that means more for you.”
For the longest time, I resented the fact that I didn’t know how to cook Cambodian cuisine on my own. It was bad enough that I wasn’t fluent in Khmer, so this was one more area of my culture where I was deficient. I used to wonder if I was more adept at preparing the tastes of my heritage, would I like the lemon rind soup? Does it make me more American/less Cambodian that I wasn’t? Food is tied so deeply into the culture, which is woven into identity, so I felt like a bad Cambodian. But every journey needs a beginning, and this is mine.
I’ve been simultaneously blessed and cursed with high salt tolerance. It is almost an addiction which feels good but I know is bad.The rest of my family is more sensitive to it, but I tend to eat way more than I should. It’s not my fault salty foods are so addicting. Growing up in America didn’t help because salt is in everything, but the first step towards recovery is acknowledging you have a problem, and salty food is mine.
My mom is a pro at making dishes that don’t suck out all the water from our bodies. The older she and my dad get, the more conscious they become of what they eat. That being said, once in a while, my mom decides to treat herself—and by extension, us—and live a little. For me, the winner of the salty food category is catfish nuggets. It’s been a very long time since we’ve had them, but I can still remember how they were crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and salty all around. Serve them over rice with a spicy mango salad on the side, and I’m in my happy place.
Salty has now become a colloquial term coined by Millennials. That, in turn, reminded me of the surge Tik Tok had during quarantine. I’m not on the app, but I do use Pinterest and Instagram Reels (and now, YouTube Shorts) for inspiration. There are so many content creators out there sharing their recipes, and they motivated me to learn more about food. The short videos are much more accessible than searching for a recipe that’s fluffed up with the author’s life story that I care nothing about. Using these recipes made me excited to keep going and see what else I could do with food. If I’m “salty” about anything, it’s all the time I spend going down a rabbit hole of recipe videos, and I have no one to blame but myself. No regrets, though.
There aren’t enough sour foods in the world. Perhaps they are so enjoyable because they aren’t available to me that often.. There’s just something satisfying about the tang on your tongue and your lips puckering from the sensation. It’s almost tangible. My last roommate squeezed limes over her food whenever she could. After living with her for three years, I adopted the habit (though to a lesser degree), and I’m not mad about it.
Just last week, I helped my mom make a Cambodian soup that’s perfect for the colder weather. There’s chicken, shrimp, pineapples, tomatoes, celery, green onion, and lotus roots. The roots cost more now thanks to inflation, so they’re a hot commodity, and my mom warned me to appreciate them. The real star of the show, however, that brings the sour profile into the dish, is the tamarind soup base. It’s a powder that’s normally added to the pot of water at the beginning of the recipe, but I always sprinkle more when I get a bowl for myself. She’ll ask me why I never try the soup first without it to see if it’s enough, but that’s the thing—it is never sour enough, and I will die on that hill.
Despite helping my mom cook a lot, I am in no way a professional cook in the kitchen. While I’m not limited to just cereal and eggs, there’s still so much about the culinary world that I don’t know. That hasn’t stopped me from trying. Being a Type 1 on the Enneagram, I’m a major perfectionist, and that carries over to my culinary endeavors. This is where the sour comes in. If a recipe doesn’t come out the way it should the first time, I get annoyed and frustrated. One time, I made cream cheese cookies that came out with the density of scones. According to my friends, they tasted delicious, but I was peeved because I didn’t want scones. Because I’m so stubborn, I researched what could have gone wrong, made them again the next day, and they came out in their intended cookie forms (in case you’re curious, the solution was using a food scale to measure the flour instead of a measuring cup because the latter uses more flour and makes the cookies denser). Moments like those have happened more than once, and each time, I become marginally more okay that it’s not perfect. I’ve learned that mistakes in the kitchen are reminders of what not to do next time. There’s always room to better myself, and food is an excellent teacher of that.
My favorite of the flavor profiles. The fact that diabetes runs in my family has not stopped me from having the biggest sweet tooth out there. Dessert is my favorite meal of the day, and I have to force myself to resist an excess intake of sugar. However, being a strong advocate of self-care (as we all should), I try to save sweets as rewards for accomplishments because they taste even better that way.
There are so many Cambodian desserts I love. Top of the list is mango over sticky rice and covered in coconut milk. I love a good sesame seed ball filled with mung beans. There’s also this honeycomb sponge cake that’s green from the Pandan extract used in it which gives it a unique look and flavor. I’m better at American baking than Khmer baking, but it is something I want to gain more experience in. For now, I’ll help myself to the dishes my aunties bring.
Sweet foods fill me with happiness, and in terms of my journey, they have helped me lean more into Cambodian cooking. During the pandemic, I moved back in with my parents. On top of that, working from home gave me more time to help my mom cook like I used to when I was a kid (although, now I can do more than just stir). We’ve laughed and gossiped and deepened our relationship while marinating meat and chopping vegetables. Our only obstacle is the fact that my mom, like most Asian moms, doesn’t use measurements. She “eyeballs” them, which stresses me out, so I just stop when the spirits of my ancestors tell me to. I also took up baking during quarantine, which hasn’t helped my sugar cravings. My harshest critic is my dad who thinks everything is too sweet. When he tries my latest recipe and responds with, “It’s not too sweet,” that’s the highest compliment I could ever get.
“Sweet or savory?” One of life’s hardest questions. Unless it’s dessert time, I’ll usually go with the latter. I love the explosion of flavors and texture of richness that comes from savory foods. When I was younger, it was easy to finish a burrito or bowl of pasta in one sitting. Now I only eat half of those foods and save the other half for the next day for some delayed gratification and the most bang for my buck.
Cambodians have a dish that is practically the same as the Vietnamese bánh xèo. It’s even said almost similarly. Think of it as a savory yellow crepe. It can be filled to your preferences, but the most common way my family does it is with chicken and/or shrimp, sauteed onions, and bean sprouts (which is the only part I don’t ask for because bean sprouts are just crunchy water to me). Then you pour some sweet and sour sauce over it and enjoy! I’ve yet to make this dish for myself, but having watched my mom make it over the years, I know there’s a lot of precision and patience involved. You have to pour the right amount of batter—too little, and it will rip; too much, and it will be too thick. You have to monitor the pan, so your batter doesn’t burn. And once you’ve put in your desired fillings, you have to be able to fold it in half and plate it. Given how good it tastes, I would say the ends justify the means.
Is it any wonder why I saved umami for last? Being in the kitchen is infinitely better when you’re with people you love. I savor those moments because we’re all bonding over a universal pleasure. We’re making food and making memories. My mom has helped me bridge the gap between my identity and my culture using food. My friends have shared their tips and tricks with me to make my learning more tolerable. My journey is still a long way from being done. Until the time comes when I arrive at the last course, bon appétit.
Editors: Hailey Hua,