Secrets of a Professional Palate

Salt, fat, acid, sweetness. When these elements exist in harmony, it is magic. But to tear them apart, to pinpoint perfection, who can do that? Chefs can, and here's what they can teach us.

creamy lemon pasta
Photo: Victor Protasio

Everything I know about food is based upon balance. As a child growing up in a Chinese household, if I craved something fried and indulgent like a bag of Doritos or the ubiquitous spring rolls at weekend dim sum, the indulgence would be followed up by a crisp cucumber or a banana, pressed into my hand. I understood balance not to be science, but necessity.

This notion of balance was informed by a loose interpretation of qi–of hot being mitigated with cool and vice versa. This balance has since followed me, haunted me through a life of cooking with the aim to alleviate homesickness, and then later, cooking as a career.

MAKE: Kiki Aranita's Gau Gee

Salt, fat, acid, sweetness. When these elements exist in harmony, it is magic. But to tear them apart, to pinpoint perfection, who can do that?

Well, I just married Ari Miller, a chef who insists upon dissecting balance. It is like being married to someone with perfect pitch. Our first year of dating saw me sitting in the corner of Musi, his new restaurant, most nights, since I mostly worked at my own restaurant during the day. Perched on a chair in the packed dining room, I dipped the antique forks and spoons we sourced from thrift shops into delicately brittle grandma-style dishes holding squash blossoms stuffed with cheese, puddles of polenta dotted with smoked turkey broth, quivering malabi, beset with foraged berries, and handmade pasta, slick and shiny with lemony butter. Sometimes the pasta was pinched into tiny caramelle, resembling wrapped candies floating in a rich broth with bitter nasturtium leaves. Sometimes the pasta was used to laminate flower petals before being cut into ribbons.

MAKE: Two-Toned Caramelle Pasta

I've cooked professionally for seven years. In that time, I've never met anyone who considered food in quite the same ways. Tasting everything, respecting the strawberry tops as much as the berries beneath them. Seeing linen as an ingredient (linen!), capable of imparting flavor to meat. Crowing over the first appearance of purslane in between the rocks of our backyard, looking longingly at the untouchable weeds between the sidewalk cracks, too exposed to the neighborhood dogs to ever be of any use in a kitchen. I used to pull purslane out by the fistful to discard, unable to identify and connect it to the ground coverings I've seen on beaches in Hawaii and slightly perturbed by its juicy pink stems. Now I pull it out and put it into my salads, blending it with fresh lemon balm and aged winter melon vinegar. He mourned the end of juneberry season. Before we started dating, I hadn't even heard of juneberries. To him, the best part of the chicken wing is the cartilage and the best part of popcorn, the un-popped kernels. Almost everything has the potential to be delicious. Almost.

Almost everything has the potential to be delicious. Almost.

Once when I purchased avocado body wash, he emerged from the shower sputtering and complaining, "This avocado stuff tastes terrible." But that's how Ari works–he truly tastes everything.

He culls flavors and dishes from my dead angles. I've always been a thrifty cook. I dutifully save all my bones and stems to simmer into stocks. I squirrel away leftovers and unwanted bits and then pride myself in making a meal out of seemingly nothing. I have striven to eat widely but with balance. I am, after all, Chinese and from Hawaii. Balance and respect for ingredients are ingrained in both my cultures. I never waste any ingredients and I'll eat everything, or so I believed.

Ari has changed how I look at springtime and how I consider the plants I didn't sow seeds in the ground to cultivate but grow anyway. Now I can tell you that the little yellow flowers of wood sorrel taste like lemon, because he tastes the woods as we hike through them. If there's a patch of anise hyssop, you'll find me in it, vying with the bees for its sweet, licorice-flavored lavender blossoms.

Navigating our way through the woods of Pennsylvania and New York and in spice markets around the world, we have different words for the same ingredients. We trade them, like small gifts. Purslane to me is 'Ākulikuli kula. Ground cherries to him are poha berries to me. Fiddlehead ferns. Pohole or hō'i'o. Now we use multiple words to refer to these ingredients, each other's words.

But the pasta with the lemony bowties–that's all him, and it is mine to enjoy.

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