From Portside Culture <[email protected]>
Subject How Sourness Has Come to Dominate Our Dining Habits, and Our Discourse
Date September 3, 2019 12:05 AM
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[ Part of the allure of sour is the physical shock, followed by
uncertainty: Is this pain or pleasure? The sensation can be
overwhelming.] [[link removed]]


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Ligaya Mishan
May 14, 2019
New York Times
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_ Part of the allure of sour is the physical shock, followed by
uncertainty: Is this pain or pleasure? The sensation can be
overwhelming. _

From candy to kombucha to our national mood, acidity is everywhere.,


SOUR IS A FLINCH, the taste that betrays. Only the most stoic among us
can keep a straight face, mouth unpuckered, after a suck of lemon,
say, or a piece of umeboshi, Japanese salted sour plum — which can
contain as much as three times a lemon’s citric acid, more than any
other fruit — or the first slow, meditative chew of Super Hiper
Ácido bubble gum from Ecuador, before its cache of sour powder
detonates and any residue of flavor is obliterated by sheer physical

It’s torment, and then it’s suddenly over: The acid dissipates and
the salivary glands, called up to neutralize the enemy, are left
watering, still spoiling for a fight. Almost against our will, we take
another bite.

These days, sour is ascendant: in the boom in sales of candy with
nearly homicidal levels of acid and apocalyptic names like Toxic
Waste, which children and adults alike post videos of themselves
twitching and suffering through on YouTube; in the resurgent pastime
of home fermentation, as do-it-yourselfers inspired by the
self-sufficiency of early settlers tend monthslong-gestating pickles,
brew kombucha and coax and coddle sourdough starters into yielding
loaves; at cocktail bars, which are increasingly stocking switchel and
shrubs — rustic concoctions of lightly sweetened vinegar —
alongside sour beer that’s been exposed to wild yeasts and bacteria
that devour sugars and generate acids; and, perhaps most
significantly, in the proliferation of seasonings and dishes from
parts of the world that have always treasured tartness and the deep
funk of foods pushed to the verge of rot.

The Nigerian-born chef Tunde Wey serves pungent fufu (fermented
cassava paste) at sold-out pop-up dinners around the United States.
People wait in line for the chef Tom Cunanan’s Filipino food at Bad
Saint in Washington, D.C., and at the chef Margarita Manzke’s Sari
Sari Store stand in Los Angeles’s Grand Central Market, where sour
— be it in the form of vinegar, the limelike calamansi or sometimes
tamarind — steadily throbs in dish after dish. According to the
American market research firm Datassential, Korean ingredients like
kimchi, which is traditionally buried underground and left to ferment
for months, now appear on 5.5 percent of menus in the United States, a
jump of 59 percent in the past five years — particularly noteworthy
since Americans of Korean descent constitute less than two-thirds of a
percent of the total population.

 We’re also welcoming sour foods into our home kitchens. In her
cookbook “Indian-ish,” published in April from Houghton Mifflin
Harcourt, the New York-based food writer Priya Krishna suggests
dusting almond-butter toast with chaat masala, a spice blend with a
tart streak of amchoor, dried and pulverized green mango. Sumac is a
top seller at Burlap & Barrel, a Queens-based company that imports
spices from small farms around the world and supplies restaurants like
Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan and Nopa in San Francisco. Their
version, from Gaziantep, Turkey, has an exceptional tang: The
plant’s berries are cured, not sun-dried, and ground coarse to
retain more juice and acid.

Ethan Frisch, one of the company’s founders, credits sumac’s
rising popularity in the United States to the “Ottolenghi effect,”
after the Israeli-born, London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi, whose
cookbooks celebrating Middle Eastern food have sold more than three
million copies in the past decade. One Facebook group devoted to his
recipes has nearly 10,000 members — which may explain a recent run
on Burlap & Barrel’s black lime, a Persian essential: limes baked in
the sun until they grow hard and dark, then crushed into powder. This
is sour upon sour, a quick barb of citrus, and then the musk of
fermentation beneath.

TASTE IS TECHNICALLY distinct from flavor: The former is information
sent to the brain by receptors in the mouth, while the latter is the
brain’s interpretation of that information, along with other input
like scent and texture. In “The Elements of Taste” (2001), the
American food writer Peter Kaminsky and the Swiss chef Gray Kunz
argued that sour is “primarily experienced in the mouth rather than
the nose” — thus it is more of a taste than a flavor. The
19th-century German physiologist Gabriel Valentin went further,
declaring that sour was a matter of touch, not taste, since its effect
was to “chiefly excite the sensitive, and not the proper gustatory

Certainly part of the allure of sour is the physical shock, followed
by uncertainty: Is this pain or pleasure? Samin Nosrat, the author of
the 2017 cookbook “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” and the host of the
recent Netflix series of the same title, who champions acid as one of
the building blocks of flavor, notes that because sourness makes the
mouth water, “your body gets confused — maybe I want more?” The
sensation can be overwhelming: Scientists have recorded a phenomenon
in which some tasters in English-speaking countries can’t tell
bitter from sour. (In one study, a third of the subjects described
lemonade as bitter.)

Is the problem linguistic or physiological? Both tastes unsettle us,
and some languages barely distinguish between them; in Tahitian one
word (’ava’ava) encompasses bitter, sour and even salty. The Latin
acer, or “sharp,” has yielded both the English “acrid,” for a
stinging bitterness, and the French aigre: “sour.” Today, the
Japanese shibui is often translated as “bitter,” but originally,
it referred to the abiding sourness of an unripe persimmon (shibushi).


Sour has many shades, ranging from the sunny kiss of a kumquat to the
brooding tang of Scandinavian rye bread. Unlike bitter, however, it is
to some extent quantifiable — a measure of a food’s acid content.
And while bitter can alert us to the presence of a potentially harmful
substance, sour may simply indicate a transformation: Milk spoils but
isn’t necessarily rendered inedible; with proper handling, it might
be on its way to becoming cheese.

A preference for sourness is arguably an evolutionary advantage. It
can lead to greater intake of vitamin C — squeezes of lime and lemon
were routinely added to the drinks of sailors on long voyages in the
18th century to ward off scurvy — and probiotic bacteria, via
fermented foods, to boost digestive health. Indeed, the use of souring
agents to preserve ingredients has been key to human survival. The
Greek historian Herodotus recorded the consumption of kumiss,
fermented mare’s milk, in the fifth century B.C.; the sour beverage,
heavy as buttermilk but bubbly as champagne, is still drunk today on
the steppes of Central Asia. Some archaeologists have proposed that
the fermenting of grain into beer was the prime motive for our shift
from nomadic hunting and gathering to settling down, growing crops and
building silos to store them. In other words, the early yearning for
sour booze — sour by necessity, from spontaneous encounters with
yeast and bacteria — was the foundation of modern civilization.

AS A FLAVOR of extremes, sour has infiltrated our discourse, too. We
have become a caustic people, more prone to declaim than listen,
corrosive in our humor and ever ready to battle. A 2011 report in the
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggested that subjects
were less likely to be agreeable and engage in charitable acts after
eating sour candy. Apparently our growing fondness for the taste has
made us turn inward, suspicious of others. Still, is this so
misguided, at a time when we don’t know if we can trust the powers
that be? Shouldn’t we be on our guard? Benjamin Franklin, in his
1732 Poor Richard’s Almanack, advised, “Tart Words make no
Friends: a spoonful of honey will catch more flies than a Gallon of
Vinegar.” But we no longer believe in the power of sweetness; sugar
seems too obvious, a distraction to be best avoided, dangerously
lulling in its transient delights.

When sourness goes too far, the facial muscles contract — and the
same happens when we’re presented with images or reports of
substances or behavior that we find revolting or deem immoral, as
shown in a 2008 study by researchers at the University of Toronto,
which compared electrical activity in the face muscles of subjects who
drank sour, bitter or salty liquids and those confronted with unfair
game scenarios. The researchers theorized that this reaction was a
rejection mechanism: We respond in this way to protect ourselves from
further exposure to food that might be poisonous or evidence that
contradicts our sense of what a just and proper society should be.
Perhaps we’re being drawn to sour now precisely because everything
outrages us; we eat to match the world we live in.

Other recent scientific studies tell a punchier story: Those who eat
sour fermented foods have less anxiety, more resilience and are
likelier to take risks. In Mandarin, to “eat bitter” means to
endure hardship, with forbearing and quiet resignation. But to “eat
vinegar” is to be jealous — to be thwarted and furious,
unreconciled to defeat. So, too, the British phrase “full of piss
and vinegar” describes someone pugilistic, looking for a brawl,
refusing to simply submit to age and fate. Where bitter is despairing,
sour is merely cynical. Innocence and optimism are gone. Gimlet-eyed,
we see the world as it is, and we won’t get fooled again.

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