How can we reconcile the idea of simplicity with the desire for complexity? This is not just an intellectual exercise, because complexity is a legitimate goal. How can we see vastly complex systems as simple?
Well, to begin with, we don’t need to see them as simple, but to see them with simplicity. Thus, Einstein could look at the universe and respond:
Our food is made up of vastly complex organisms, (apart from a few minerals all food comes from organisms). These we can interpret with culinary simplicity.
The secret is harmony.
What makes a symphony different from a sonata is the complexity of the voices. The orchestra creates an elaboration of the themes. But this complexity must follow internal logic or it will fall apart. Only through the harmony of the individual elements can we understand the meaning of the whole.
Whether a sandwich or a banquet, a meal must follow the same principle. Harmony must guide our choices and the role of simplicity, though concealed, is vital.
When we try to impose complexity by force, through the imposition of conflicting voices, i.e.:flavors, we create a cacophony which confuses our tastes and leads us off a culinary cliff. Eventually it will kill our tastes.
This is what happens when we overuse flavorings, condiments or ingredients. And this is inevitable when we use ingredients which have been drained of flavor through poor cultivation or through over processing. A great many dishes could be improved by the removal of an item or two.
So, what of dishes like the Indian Biryanis and Curries, which can contain many spices and flavorings? As always, they are in harmony and do not fight. A thousand years of tradition and experimentation has seen to this. The choices are not arbitrary, they don’t gang up on each other. They achieve simplicity through complexity.
There are thousands of “false friends” in cooking. Ingredients which seem like they should go together but in fact do not: garlic in Onion Soup; lime with avocado; tomato with ham. No amount of “liking” these combinations can make them culinarily correct. And here we’re not talking about taste or preference but of physiology. Just like a small amount of salt will kill the flavor of coffee, contradict it, spoil its essence, a small amount of certain flavorings can be as out of place as a kazoo in a string quartet.
Next week: How these combinations develop, and why it matters.