Salt may be the ultimate flavor enhancer, but sugar is no slouch when it comes to balancing flavors in savory dishes, and one of the best ways to do so is by cooking with fruits.
Using fruit in savory dishes is not new fashion. In fact, it’s downright old hat - if we’re talking about botanically-correct fruits that are more commonly considered ‘vegetables’, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplants, to name a few. As for the sweet varieties of produce that are not as ambiguous, they have also found their way into main courses. From succulent pork loin paired with spiced apples to roast turkey dressed with cranberry sauce, a bit of fruit can add another dimension to full-flavored recipes.
Have you ever wondered why baked ham and pineapple slices pair up so well? Or how prosciutto and cantaloupe make a lovely twosome? Instead of being an odd couple, meat and sweet have perfect chemistry together. It turns out that the basic tastes of sweetness and umami (generally described as savoriness or a ‘meaty’ flavor) share the same tastebud receptor protein called T1R3. Fortunately, specific receptor cells on each of our tastebuds pick out particular combinations of T1R3 and other proteins to express the correct flavors, which is why your medium rare steak doesn’t taste like a sun-ripened strawberry.
Similarly, salt and sugar enhance one another because a particular taste sensor for sweetness known as SGLT1 is activated only when sodium is present. In fact, sweet and salty often work in tandem to help mute acidity, bitterness and sourness in foods by increasing each other’s level of detection by tastebuds, thereby making their tastes more prominent.
Aside from the flavor aspect, using fruit has other culinary purposes. Thanks to the protein-hostile enzymes bromelain, papain and actinidin found in pineapples, papayas and kiwi fruit, respectively, these fruits make excellent meat tenderizers, either in their fresh forms or in commercial powdered products. Similarly, citric acid in citrus fruits such as limes and lemons are used to ‘cook’ the popular South American seafood dish ceviche, by denaturing the proteins in the raw fish. The addition of pleasantly fruity flavors is an added bonus.
Not everyone is enamored with the idea of fruit in savory food, however. Preferences for certain taste pairings are often ingrained by culture, such as equating sweetness with desserts. But keep in mind that not all fruits are sugary and in other cuisines, such produce is often used in everything from salads to soups. The Thai salad yam som-o is a refreshing mixture of shrimps and pomelo, a large, mildly sweet citrus that is often mistaken for a grapefruit (which is, in fact, a hybrid of pomelo and orange). The lime juice and pungent, salty fish sauce used in the dressing help to suppress any tartness or bitterness in the fruit. Green papaya is another favored ingredient in Thai salads, and is also a key element in Filipino tinola, a comforting ginger and chicken soup. The flavor of unripe papaya is quite mild, which makes it a complementary component to the gentle taste of the broth, while the fruit’s enzyme papain helps to tenderize the chicken meat.
Whether sweet, tart or sour, fruits are versatile and flavorful additions to savory dishes.
Cooking with Fruit
Looking for a change from the classic pork and apples combination? Sweet and sour chicken may be a staple of Chinese restaurant menus, but it is often made with pineapples – a fruit originating in South America. Peaches, on the other hand, are native to China, so try this peaches and chicken stir-fry for a closer-to-origins flavor.
For something completely different, how about going bananas? Plantains belong to the same family as dessert bananas (those ubiquitous bunches found in every produce section). Firmer and less sweet than the latter, they are a staple food prepared in a variety of ways around the world, particularly in Central and South America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. In the Philippines, they are called saba and are grilled on skewers (banana-cue) or wrapped like spring rolls and deep fried (turons) to make sweet snacks. Saba is a key ingredient in pochero (from puchero, Sp. ‘stewpot’), a savory dish derived from a Spanish meat, vegetable and chickpea stew known as cocido. One of the Filipino adaptations is the addition of saba, which helps round out the different tastes found in this one traditional dish.
Simple Chicken Pochero
6-8 pieces chicken (thighs, drumsticks and/or breasts)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, diced
1 large potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 links Spanish chorizo, sliced into ¼-inch thick rounds
1 cup cooked chickpeas or cannellini beans
1 (14.5oz) can of whole stewed tomatoes
1 cup water
1 cup fresh green beans, trimmed
3-4 ripe plantains, sliced crosswise into thick chunks
1 bunch baby bok choy, trimming leaves and stems
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil and brown chicken pieces; remove from pot and set aside. Add garlic, onions and potato chunks to the pot and sauté until potatoes start to brown. Place chicken pieces over the garlic, onion and potato mixture, then add sliced chorizo, beans, stewed tomatoes (break them up a bit with a fork) and water. Bring to a strong simmer then reduce heat to medium-low and add green beans.
Partly cover the pot and gently simmer for about 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally to mix the ingredients. When the chicken is cooked through, add plantains and cook for another 5-7 minutes, then add bok choy. Cook until the greens are just wilted. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Serve with steamed rice.
Tracey Paska lives, eats and writes in Manila, Philippines, where she revels in the fact that she can wear flip-flops outdoors in January. When she's not exploring Manila's foodscape, she freelances for a national food magazine and writes about the complex and fascinating connections between food, culture, and society on her blog Tangled Noodle. Her last post for us was: A Guide to Asian Greens.