The Ethereal Taste of Flowers
IN 1845, NEARLY a year into a punishing 3,000-mile trek through the Australian interior (then still terra incognita to outsiders), the Prussian …
IN 1845, NEARLY a year into a punishing 3,000-mile trek through the Australian interior (then still terra incognita to outsiders), the Prussian naturalist Ludwig Leichhardt attempted to eat the fruit of Pandanus spiralis, a tree that huddled at the edges of watering holes. Pandanus is a genus of tropical evergreens that grow in Southeast and South Asia, Oceania and Africa, with leaves that tend to rise and arch in a whorl around the stem and bulbous fruit, whose polyp-like knobs evoke a pineapple’s armor — hence the English name, screw pine. For Leichhardt, initial results were poor: the “rich, mellow pear-like” flesh of the fruit, he wrote, proved to be “hot, and made our lips and tongues very sore.” (Stomach trouble ensued.) Snooping around the remains of campfires abandoned by locals, he deduced that the fruit had to be buried in hot ash, then soaked and roasted before it could be considered edible.
Leichhardt disappeared two and a half years later, at age 34, trying to cross the continent, and his experiment in eating Pandanus failed to earn it a spot in the Western canon of cuisine. And yet the genus has given us one of the world’s most distinct, if elusive, flavors, via Pandanus amaryllifolius, commonly known in the West as pandan, from the proto-Malayo-Polynesian language. A cousin to the Australian native that Leichhardt encountered, pandan has long been cultivated in Southeast Asia but never been found spontaneously occurring, without human intervention, in the wild. Botanists hypothesize that the plant originated in the Maluku archipelago of Indonesia, which was once the exclusive province of the world’s most prized spices — clove, nutmeg, mace — for which wars were fought and thousands massacred. Although sponge cakes suffused with pandan may be found in cafes in the Netherlands today, the Dutch colonists who commandeered Indonesia’s bounty apparently did not deem it economically beneficial to exploit the plant. Its appeal is more subtle than the bronze warmth of those Maluku spices, resting in its slightly stiff, narrow leaves that end in sharp tips. Immaculate on the stem, they offer no scent, but gently crush them and their fragrance is released.
The leaves aren’t meant to be eaten directly. Fan them across the bottom of a steamer basket or baking tray; fold them and make a swaddle for meat before roasting; knot them together and submerge in water, coconut milk or a pot of soaking rice, then simmer; or pulverize them and squeeze out the liquid, which brings a sunny green to puto (steamed rice cakes) in the Philippines and, in Indonesia and Malaysia, to velvety kaya (coconut jam) and the snaky little jellies in cendol, an iced dessert. Once leached of their life force, the leaves are discarded, and what they leave behind is a flavor often described as floral, delicate yet pronounced and almost impossible to explain to those who’ve never tried it. In the West, it has been likened to vanilla but also hazelnut, grass, rose, citrus and pine, although it’s unclear if it actually tastes like any of those ingredients or simply takes on such notes in proximity, chameleonic — or if it is technically a flavor at all, and not pure scent and evocation: of place; of other flavors, other times; of something inchoate and ghostly that disappears before it can be named.
PART OF THE confusion is a matter of terms. The ancients grappled with how to categorize the sensations that come to us through food. As the classicist John Paulas outlines in his 2017 essay “Tastes of the Extraordinary: Flavor Lists in Imperial Rome,” the Greek philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias, around the turn of the third century A.D., drew an Aristotelian axis with sweet at one end and bitter on the other, with six mixed flavors (oily, pungent, tannic, tart, sour, briny) making up the gradations in between, while the Roman naturalist and historian Pliny the Elder, in the first century A.D., proposed 10 standard flavors (with the notable additions of fresh and mild) and three paradoxes: the flavor that is perceived as singular when it is in fact a crowd of flavors conspiring at once, with wine as the exemplar; the flavor that does not fit any category and is sui generis to a particular food, like the “prevailing blandness” of milk; and the flavor that is the very absence of flavor, nullus, as in water. With this last philosophical gambit, “Pliny drops his audience into an abyss,” Paulas writes, “for the sake of sheer wonder.”
Modern science has dispelled some of these more rapturous ruminations and trimmed the list to five tastes, strictly corresponding to receptor cells on the tongue that react to chemical components in food. It’s these reactions, triggering the nervous system, that yield the traditional perceptions of sweet, sour, salty and bitter, as well as the relative newcomer umami, best understood as savory and meaty, a distinct taste identified by a Japanese chemist in 1908 and viewed somewhat skeptically by Westerners until the early 2000s, when scientists confirmed the existence of taste receptors that detect umami, in the form of the amino acid glutamate. These sensory perceptions were likely evolutionarily advantageous, according to Arielle Johnson, 34, a New York-based flavor scientist and the author of “Flavorama: The Unbridled Science of Flavor and How to Get It to Work for You,” forthcoming in 2023. We are able to recognize sweet, for example, because sugar is “the most basic form of energy our bodies can use,” she says, while salty indicates the presence of important minerals and bitter warns us of potential toxicity. There are an additional two “maybe” tastes, she says, with research ongoing into how we discern carbonation and fattiness (another building block of nutrition). Notably, spicy doesn’t count: From the perspective of neurology, we register the heat of chiles as touch, which is to say pain.
Flavor, however, is not taste. If taste is literal and thus limited, flavor is poetic and near infinite. It relies on scent as much as and sometimes more than taste, and scent not straightforwardly inhaled through the nose but carried retronasally, through passages at the back of the mouth. Historically, humans have always been judged at a deficit to animals in our sense of smell; a beagle, with its long snout, has 220 million to 300 million scent receptors against our measly six million to 20 million. But the Yale neuroscientist Gordon M. Shepherd has theorized that the extensive regions of our brain dedicated to olfactory processing give us an advantage, especially with a boost from the temporal and frontal lobes when memory is called upon to sift through smells and assign them meaning. Some scientists estimate that we can distinguish at least one trillion smells, far more than the colors we see or the tones we hear. And while we may not be as sensitive as animals when it comes to using smells to map territory, interpret hormonal signals or tell friend from foe, our experience of food is arguably deeper because of our advanced cognitive ability to parse the confluences of taste and scent. We think, therefore we eat — for pleasure, and not just survival.
THERE IS A weightlessness to floral flavors. They lack the voluptuousness of perfume or actual flowers, and arrive at the table filtered and secondhand, attenuated and almost austere. The pleasures of food are already ephemeral, plates soon emptied and spirited away, but these notes have a swifter evanescence, vanishing even as we try to pin them down. On a molecular level, pandan has kinship to jasmine and basmati rice, masa tortillas, crusty baguettes, Camembert cheese, pale lager, lobster tail and Iberian dry-cured ham: They all share the aromatic compound 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline, which lends a roasted, popcorn-like note. But science can only explain so much. If you drink water that has been steeped with pandan leaves, you don’t think of lobster or Camembert. The flavor is simply green — not grassy, not herbal, but green like a stand of bamboo after morning rain.
To the Thai chef Pim Techamuanvivit, 50, who runs Nari and Kin Khao in San Francisco and oversees the kitchen at Nahm in Bangkok, floral is less a flavor unto itself than something that transforms other flavors, or at least how we experience them — another paradox and wonder of nature to add to Pliny’s taxonomy. In Thai food, flavors rarely exist in isolation or even in hierarchy; rather than one note dominating, many work in concert, each earning its place, as in khao yum, a salad from southern Thailand in which rice — tinged purplish-blue by butterfly pea flowers or yellow-orange by turmeric or gardenia fruit, or both side by side — comes surrounded by small heaps of ingredients that might include crunchy long beans or sugar snap peas, tart green mango or pomelo, herbs and leaves with hints of citrus and bitterness, chiles of declamatory heat, a riddle of seeds, toasted coconut flakes, nuts broken down to near dust, ground dried shrimp for the brine that goes beyond mere salt and sometimes petals or whole small blossoms, all to be doused with fermented fish sauce.
“The taste is constantly changing,” Techamuanvivit says. Scent is key to this, contouring and enhancing. Some traditional Thai dishes call for it as a separate ingredient, in the form of tian op, a candle infused with ylang-ylang, patchouli and frankincense — a hint of the sacred — and shaped like a U, to be lit at both ends and then floated in a pot of rice along with jasmine flowers (with the lid placed on top to extinguish the flames), to make khao chae, a cool summer soup, or sealed in a jar with coconut milk, flour or an already finished dessert. Smoke infiltrates the food, possesses it, not unlike the liquid smoke first bottled by the pharmacist Ernest H. Wright in Missouri in 1895 as a preservative and later adopted as a shortcut to barbecue; but here there’s no trace of caramelization or char, just a beatific nimbus, as of a distant daub of perfume.
The Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector writes in her 1973 prose poem-essay “Água Viva” (translated by Elizabeth Lowe and Earl Fitz), “I’ve eaten jelly made from small, scarlet roses: Its taste blesses us at the same time that it assaults us. How to reproduce taste in words?” Language is approximate, and the preceding description of Thai candle-smoke flavor is likely as unsatisfying to you as it is to me, the person who wrote it. Speaking with Techamuanvivit, I envied the expansiveness of Thai, which offers “words for certain flavors and sensations that don’t exist in English,” she says. When she tries to translate one for me — a single syllable that she pronounces “mun” — she ends up with a meandering sentence that folds back on itself twice: “sort of this kind of green that you get from the greenest part of an unripe mango, but also round, really earthy and fat, but not in an oily way.” Plush? I venture, and she considers it. Maybe.
IN THEIR EERIE disembodiment — as scents that imply flavor but deliver little by way of nutrients, tricking the brain into imagining a nourishment that isn’t there — floral flavors may call to mind molecular gastronomy, in which elements of familiar dishes might be reimagined as vapor or froth. But flowers themselves have for centuries been part of cuisines around the world. Martha Ortiz, the chef of Dulce Patria and Filigrana in Mexico City and Ella Canta in London, draws on long Mexican traditions of eating flowers, stirring jasmine and maguey and manzanilla blossoms into rich sauces and folding hibiscus, roses and bougainvillea powder into white mole to make it pink. She refuses to treat them as frippery or dainty delicacies: “They can be the main ingredient.”
In the United States and most of Europe, however, these kinds of fleeting notes have never really strayed beyond the realm of the rarefied, as with candied violets or the carnations believed to be distilled by monks to make the French liqueur Chartreuse (whose recipe remains a closely guarded secret). In the 17th century, Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, ordered the royal pharmacist, Francesco Redi, to devise a secret recipe for chocolate, at the time still a fairly recent arrival from the Americas. Redi’s elaborate instructions, revealed only after his death, demanded the layering of cacao and jasmine, with the flowers to be exchanged each day for fresh ones for 10 to 12 days running. The scented beans were then ground with additional flowers — vanilla orchids likewise imported from the New World — and sugar, cinnamon and ambergris, the waxy slough from the intestines of a sperm whale.
These were costly ingredients, and that was the point. Even today, a spice like saffron — whose crimson threads are the stigmas of Crocus sativus, only three to a flower, with tens of thousands of blossoms required to yield a pound, which can sell for as much as $5,000 — telegraphs a certain intent. “It’s about showing your guests that you care about them, that you’ve spent money,” says Louisa Shafia, the author of the cookbook “The New Persian Kitchen” (2013), who has roots in Iran and lives in Nashville. Saffron stains everything it touches gold, which is both visual flourish and metaphor.
“The way we learn flavors is by exposure and association,” Johnson says. So a floral scent often speaks to us of higher things: of nature, which we romanticize as we grow more distant from it; of beauty for the sake of beauty. In the work of the 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi, the rose is an emblem of the perfection of God, and to this day Persians see it as a mystical symbol, Shafia says. A certain reverence is invoked by its scent, whether crushed into the savory spice mix advieh or distilled in rosewater, traditionally sprinkled at funerals and offered to anoint the palms of guests; a splash lends elegance to dishes like morassa polo (literally translated as “jeweled rice”) and cooling sharbat, a summer drink that is half refresher, half medicine.
BUT THE WESTERN palate is slowly changing. Cheryl Udzielak, 42, a senior flavorist at the Chicago laboratories of the Swiss company Givaudan, the world’s largest manufacturer of flavors and fragrances, sees more floral variations in demand in their work, which mixes science and psychology. (A recent Givaudan job listing invited applicants into “an industry of emotions.”) In the beverage department — “they’re always the trailblazers,” she says — flavorists might pair something traditional like a fruit with a floral note, “making it more sophisticated but linking it to something safe that the consumer can understand.”
Florals function much like herbs, to give brightness and lift, but “are sweeter, more tealike,” Udzielak says. They’re also more challenging to use, as a little goes a long way, without much room for error. There’s an immediate effect to increasing or reducing them. When synthesizing a tamarind flavor, for example, she found that boosting the florals brought out a raisinlike character; when lessened, a limelike sourness came to the fore. To her there is no question of whether they are flavors or just scents, because without scent there is no flavor. “Flavorists are perfumers, but for food,” she says. Growing up in the American Midwest, she was accustomed to black pepper sold preground in tins at the supermarket, so it was a revelation the first time she tried whole peppercorns freshly cracked. The flavor is stronger and warmer, with a backdrop of citrus and berries, and a faint, comforting must. “I can’t go back,” she says.
Givaudan has its own taxonomy of flavors, with eight icons, among them vanilla — pandan’s supposed doppelgänger, and perhaps the one floral flavor embedded in the Western psyche as the default of ice cream. But what does vanilla taste like? “Sweet, brown, alcoholic,” Udzielak says without hesitation. “If from Madagascar, more leathery; if from Mexico, more barklike and woody.” When I consult Johnson, however, her take is different: “It tastes a little bit like pandan, a little creamy, a little fruity, like very lightly cooked sugar — not exactly cotton candy, but melted sugar.”
And then she laughs. “How would you describe the color blue?”
Food styling: Young Gun Lee. Prop styling: Leilin Lopez-Toledo. Photo assistant: Jongseok Lim. Food stylist’s assistant: Tristan Kwong. Prop assistant: Ryan Chassee