Monday, August 31, 2009

The Five Tastes and Tuna Tartare On Wonton Crisps

If you have been cooking (and eating) for awhile you can most likely pick out the ingredients of various dishes even if you've never eaten them before.

This is true for several reasons. The first reason is experience.

Oh, isn't that a dirty little word in today's world?

Experience isn't highly valued anymore as so many of the recently unemployed have come to realize.

But this isn't a post about the employment situation.

This is a post about cooking and tasting and food.

The other reason you can guess at ingredients is because there are really only five tastes that the human tongue and brain can distinguish.

They are:

1. salty
2. sour
3. sweet
4. bitter
5. and the newer kid on the block, umami

We all know the first four - the fifth is the more recently discovered Umami.

Umami is the flavor of one food that is transferred to another. Think tofu. Tofu takes on the taste and flavor of another.

Once you have experienced a taste it becomes familiar. Your brain charts it. Most of us had all this brain charting finished by the time we were three years old. At least the virgin five tastes.

Then, as we expanded our palates from say, mashed green beans to green beans sauteed in bacon and pearl onions, we added to the "mapping".. our brains registered more refined and more complex combinations of flavors.

One of the first things you learn in culinary school is how to taste food. What you ask? How can that be? You've been tasting ever since the day you were born.

Ah... but do you really know how to taste food? Can you identify the individual ingredients?

Try it sometime.

Do this.

Smell your food. I mean really smell it. Get a good whiff.
Take a bite of food.
Now close your eyes and let the food rest in your mouth, then chew slowly. The saliva will help break down the food and activate your taste buds.
Let the flavor and texture of the food wander over your entire tongue and roof of your mouth. At each different place on your tongue you will experience a different taste - because that's the way your tongue is set up.

Salty and sweet is at the front tip of your tongue.
Sour is on either side
There aren't too many taste buds in the center
Bitter is towards the back.

If you do this enough, you will become an expert at identifying ingredients (you have to do this with your ingredients as well).

The Best Husband In The World and I had dinner at a new restaurant in our town a few nights ago. I ordered an appetizer of Tuna Tartare on Wonton Crisps. As I often do after enjoying a new food creation, I recreated it at home.

I have a system for this that so far has served me well.

First, I draw a picture of the food. If I don't happen to have paper, I just use a napkin:

I don't take a picture because I think that's a little rude...

Then I make a list of ingredients that I can visually SEE on the plate.

Then I smell it.
Then I taste it.
If there are ingredients that I can't see, but can smell and taste, I list those.

This one was pretty easy because I had experienced all of these flavors before. I just had to put them together.

Viola. A recipe is [re] born.

Tuna Tartare on Wonton Crisps: makes about 30 appetizers

A nice slice of sashimi grade tuna, about 1 1/2 inches thick.
Wonton wrappers, sliced in half, on the diagonal
Sesame Seeds
Sesame Oil
1 egg white
alfalfa sprouts
wasabi cream (prepared) or wasabi powdered made very thin with water

Cut the tuna steak in half. You want it about 2 inches wide. You will have two pieces of tuna now.
Dip each tuna steak in the egg white, then in the sesame seeds.
Sear the tuna in sesame oil for 30 seconds on all sides (yes, count.. 1,2,3 until you hit 30, then turn)

Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until very cold. About an hour or so.

Pan fry (in about 1/2 inch of oil) the triangular wonton wrappers until just golden. About 30 seconds per side.

Drain on paper towels.
Make the wasabi. (or thin if store bought)


Slice the tuna very, very thin.

Place one piece of tuna on each wonton half.

Place a mere 3 to 4 alfalfa sprigs on top.
Dot with a bit of wasabi.

If you enjoy sushi you will love the crunch of the wonton wrapper, the cold, sweet tenderness of the tuna, the nuttiness of the sesame seeds, the fresh, peppery taste of the alfalfa sprouts and the bite of the wasabi on all parts of your palate.

A Cook's Notes: I don't do this every time we go out to dinner, that would drive TBHITW out of his mind. I also sometimes just ask the chef for the recipe. That works too!


  1. It's only 9:30am but that tuna has me drooling. I'm horrible at picking out the different flavours in food. Whenever my wife asks me to try something because it's missing something I usually respond in non-committal grunts.

  2. Captain,

    Thanks for stopping by. Your post with the Lego's is genius.
    Impress your wife and make this tuna! Usually if it's missing something it's salt. Of course if you follow the Julia Child way of cooking, it's butter.

  3. That looks amazing! I just bought some ahi yesterday too! I have a recipe for this exact same appetizer only I don't think the ahi was seared, I think it was just diced and served completely raw.

    I will have to bookmark this page to impress some guests! :o)

  4. Thanks for the lesson on taste. I often don't recognize flavors. This looks just wonderful.

    I'm still not over your recipe for the potatoe puffs. I told my husband it's on my list for our next get-together. I will shock and amaze with that recipe.

  5. I have occasionally tried to figure out ingredients. I don't think I am as sophisticated in that process as you!

  6. Where is my comment? I posted one last night and now it is gone...hmmm, maybe I am starting to hallucinate?

    Looks delish. I keep seeing tuna tartare on Iron Chef and it looks interesting. Add that wonton and it looks wonderful!

  7. Jen, impress them you will! This dish is so easy it's almost a sin that it is soo tasty!

    Nancy, it takes practice to gain experience. Start with tasting each and every one of your ingredients - that's the way to start. Oh, test out the potato puffs before you serve to guests. Different types of potatoes will yield different results.

    Deb - practice! see advice to Nancy (above)

    Tamis, Easy, easy, easy and tasty. My favorite tastes and recipes are always a combination of this.

  8. I loved reading the process of how you did this. I remember watching the TV show Top Chef and they had a challenge to guess I think it was Y20 different foods...with their eyes closed. I know I would fail it miserably but I was floored that they did so badly. I cannot imagine wanting to be a chef and not giving your tongue and palate "experience." You could tell how they were being fooled by texture by their guesses. Maybe it is harder than I think.

  9. Thanks Cook

    you are such a clever pixie...

    Happy days

  10. I had no idea you could rebirth a dish like that! I say you, because I mean you. I am simply not capable of this.

    But, my husband, I've seen him pick out flavors from tastes too. I find it so fascinating. Of course, most of the time, he just shovels it in mindlessly...

  11. Yaya, thanks for visiting. I hope you try this recipe.

    Happy Hour, thanks for visiting especially because it led me back to your blog which I love! Tasting does involve experience. The best way to start is to taste your raw ingredients and get to know them - well!

    Delwyn, Clever Pixie? Moi? I like that moniker!!

    Blueviolet - thanks you for visiting. I'm heading over to your blog now to read a bit... Husbands - LOL... Got'ta Love em - Got'ta feed em.


Wow. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I love feedback... what with being a cook and all. I will respond to your comments via email (if you do not have a "noreply" address or here, below your comment) As always, Bon Appetite!

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