THE GOCHISO GOURMET: Why are you a sourpuss?


Is it because you love namasu? Or do you simply relish the palate cleansing effect of a splash of lemon juice? Or are you simply a sour person? Personally, I’ve never really been a huge fan of Japanese pickled vegetables (namasu) by itself. But consuming it as a side dish to cleanse the palate between bites of fatty proteins, as a contrast to richer flavors like smoked, roasted or cured pork or just simply for the contrasting cold crunch, that’s where pickles shine.

Banh mi with pickles2
IT’S ALL ABOUT BALANCE ­—Daikon and carrots balance roasted pork and pork liver pâté, to create a perfect banh mi. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

As highlighted in the previous month’s columns, sour taste receptors are one of the five basic flavor sensations residing on our tongues. And like bitter, sour helps balance the sweeter and saltier nature of foods, as well as refresh the palate between bites of richer tasting foods. That’s why oilier fish dishes benefit from a squeeze of lemon. Or why coleslaw (yes, it is mayonnaise, but also vinegar based) provides the perfect balance to pulled pork. Or why those pickled daikon and carrots help balance a perfect banh mi with roasted pork and pork liver pâté.

What is the Sour Sensation?

What your taste buds actually are detecting are dissolved acids. They may be as simple as the hydrochloric acid that “repeats” from your stomach or the organic acids like citric acid from citrus fruits, tartaric acid from wines or malic acid from that tart green apple. Or it can be that simple bottled acid, acetic acid, which is the primary acid in basic vinegar.

The sour receptors provide an awakening or refreshing of the palate. In the case of sour candies, it’s usually a jolt of stimulation to shock our palates. When it’s the judicious application of vinegar or citrus juice, it complements other foods and refreshes and cleanses the palate preparing us for that next bite of food.

Sour Sauces

One of the basic Asian sauces that I’m sure you have already sampled — probably at your neighborhood Chinese restaurant — is a sweet and sour sauce, which is usually served on medallions of pork seasoned with ketchup and garnished with pineapple chunks. Or perhaps it was as simple as Panda’s orange chicken. But in any case, the sweet and sour play off of each other and balance the flavor sensations. One or perhaps several flavor sensations higher is the traditional Chinese hot and sour soup. Now, if this soup doesn’t awaken your palate, it’s probably dead or at least hibernating through winter.

And it’s not just the Chinese who know that balancing various basic flavor sensations brightens food. European food culture also has the same interplay between sweet and sour. The Italians have agrodolce, which translates to sweet and sour, while the French have aigre-doux, which also translates to sweet and sour. The French also produce one of my favorite sauces, a gastrique, which is basically vinegar that’s used to deglaze a caramelized sauce like duck sauce or the classic sauce for Duck a l ’Orange.

I once had pan fried sweetbreads served with an apricot gastrique that both the Mrs. and I still dream about. The sweet and sour flavors balance each other while the tart quality of the vinegar cut through the rich flavors of the sweetbread. We thought we had died and gone to heaven! And whenever I purchase a container of fried pig’s ears from my local Farmer’s Market, I always enjoy it with my Pinot Noir, fig and balsamic gastrique.

More than Just for Vinaigrettes

I posted this recipe about six years ago highlighting the humble eggplant ( It’s the Italian version of the French ratatouille, with one major difference; it has a nice hit of acid from the red wine vinegar that makes it as refreshing as a nice summer salad with a bright vinaigrette. Therefore you can serve it cold as you would a salad or serve it warm as a refreshing side dish. Or you can create your own gastrique:

Basic Gastrique

1 to 2 cups fruit

1 tbsp olive oil

1 shallot, minced

3 tbsp sugar

4 tbsp wine

3 tbsp vinegar

Salt and black pepper to taste

½ to 1 tsp of optional spice

Combine ingredients in a small sauce pan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer until fruit is tender, for seven to 10 minutes. Pour mixture into a food processor and purée. There are no hard rules to making a gastrique. Adjust the sugar and vinegar based on the ripeness and tartness of the fruit used. Red or white wine can be used based on the fruit and the protein it will be served with and you can select any one of a number of vinegars — red wine, balsamic, champagne and even flavored vinegars. Use your imagination.

Be a Sourpuss

So the next time your palate needs a little refreshing, stimulate those sour taste buds with more than just sour candy. Add homemade pickles to your next sandwich creation or even vinegar based coleslaw to perk up those taste buds. Experiment with citrus and vinegar based sauces to balance richer proteins and create your own gastriques. Remember that well rounded culinary creations stimulate all of our taste buds!

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at


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