The experience of enjoying food consists of more than one process. First, we eat with our eyes. Figuratively, of course, because what it really means is that when we see something that looks delicious, the visual experience sends a message to our brain that the food is delicious and we must try it. If you’re a buffet regular, stop and think about how you choose which items to try. Don’t you choose the ones that LOOK delicious? This is especially true when it comes to dessert. That’s why professional chefs take so much trouble with the plating. Layers of shapes, colors and textures plus some fancy decorating make food look appetizing so they capitalize on that.
But eating with the eyes is only the first step. The pretty food goes into the mouth, touches the taste buds, makes contact with the palate and if the flavors, textures and mouth feel match the visual delight, then, we say that the food is really good. There are times, however, when the pretty food turns out to be nothing more than pretty. The luscious cream in the dessert is spiked with so much gelatin that the creaminess is just an illusion. The shapes and colors of the salad ingredients that made our eyes pop are actually nothing but eye candy. The rich and shimmering silky gravy on the steak tastes so strongly of artificial food enhancers like MSG.
The truth is that no amount of plating and decorating will ever compensate for badly cooked food. Well, except for people who can’t tell the different between real whipped cream and the cheaper substitutes, or whose seasoning standards include MSG. Personally, I am just so tired of paying a premium for pretty but so-so tasting food.
In home cooking, we usually work less at the looks and pay more attention to the intrinsic quality of the food because, well, we want to feed our family well, don’t we, and we want meals to be pleasant experiences. But there is nothing wrong though with making a little extra effort to make great-tasting dishes look more appealing on the plate too. But, in doing so, let us remember not to follow the examples set by the restaurant industry. In short, ditch the decorating and opt for the smarter to make food look good. If we have to add color to our rice, for instance, let the addition mean added flavor too.
Let’s take rice, for instance. What can be exciting about a bowl of monochromatic colors and shapes? Nothing. Isn’t that why, more often than not, Chinese style fried rice and Java rice are first and second choices, and plain white rice the last resort?
Let’s make plain white rice exciting then. Let’s color it yellow. Meaning, a few drops of food color? Hell, no, of course not!
We cook rice with water. That’s as basic as it gets. Want flavor? Use broth instead of water. Want more flavor? Use a blend of broth and coconut milk instead of water. Want bright yellow rice? Add turmeric. Or, if you have some, soak a pinch of saffron threads in hot water and add everything to the rice (thank you to my future sister-in-law, Laura, for the saffron).
Then, when the rice is done, scoop into bowls and sprinkle with sliced shallots before serving. Can you imagine the layers of flavor in the rice and the contrasting texture of the scallions?
What about fried rice?
Okay, we like garlic fried rice. Almost everyone I know likes garlic fried rice. Heat the oil in the pan, add chopped garlic, cook until lightly browned then add the day-old rice. Cook until heated through. Serve with more toasted garlic on top.
But that won’t make the rice yellow! Right. So, you use butter instead of oil, and you add a beaten egg. And that will turn your garlic fried rice in a richly flavored yellow garlic fried rice. A little chopped parsley or scallions will make it even better.
Like I often say, sometimes, it’s the little things that make a world of difference. It’s true with food and cooking; it’s true with most everything in life.