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The shock of the new

Jeanne Horak-Druiff takes a closer look at some new flavour combinations but draws a line at eel ice cream and cheesy chocolate.

by: Jeanne Horak-Druiff | 23 Feb 2009

I love the British people. I live among them every day and I've seen first hand their many good attributes and appealing eccentricities. They know how to queue in an orderly fashion. They become putty in your hands if you offer them a nice cup of tea and a biscuit. And unlike the Europeans, they know how to drive on the correct side of the road!

But for all their urbane worldliness, I have to say this: the British are very easy to shock. Gordon Ramsay swearing on TV shocks them (despite the fact that any 10-year-old knows and often uses the very same words).

And this week, newspapers would have us believe that even new flavour combinations in the culinary world have the power to shock them. Spice company Schwartz recently unleashed their Flavour Forecast of unusual flavour combinations for 2009 on an unsuspecting public, and at least one UK newspaper warned readers that the combinations are "pretty weird".

What really interested me about the list of unusual flavour combinations for 2009, though, was this: usually South Africa lags a season behind European fashions, whether couture or culinary. But quite a few combinations on this list struck my South African palate as strangely familiar. And that got me thinking about the shock of the new and how it means different things to different people.

No longer shocking:

Raw fish with horseradish – when my parents visited Japan in the 1970s, they came back with tales of horror for the children: "Never order fish if you go to Japan because they bring it to you RAW!" Now there can hardly be a city in South Africa where it's not possible to order sushi with a side order of wasabi.

Strawberries with balsamic vinegar and black pepper – my Italian sister-in-law's dad used to wax lyrical about this combo which we though was a particularly crazy eccentricity. Now this combo is available in restaurants up and down the land and scarcely raises an eyebrow. Expect a strawberry and balsamic McMilkshake soon.

Chilli and chocolate – the first time I read about this unusual combination in the classic Mexican mole sauce, I pictured Cadbury's Dairy Milk melted over Jalapenos or similar. Of course, the real thing is far more like cocoa powder mixed with a dash of spice and I defy you to name a top South African restaurant that has not yet dabbled in this combination in some form. Positively passé.

On the Schwartz list for 2009:

Carrot and cinnamon – If you grew up in an Afrikaans household in South Africa cinnamon was practically compulsory with vegetables. My father still refuses to eat any squash or pumpkin without a ton of cinnamon sugar. The only carrots my mom used to make were sweet caramelised carrots, and I don't see that adding a pinch of cinnamon would be a stretch for any South African's tastebuds.

Pineapple and star anise – clearly the authors of this list of novelty pairings have not been to Durban lately, where pineapple chunks coated with chilli powder are sold on the beachfront. Star anise is the sissy option.

Apricot and saffron – similarly, the writers are unfamiliar with Cape Malay cuisine. The fragrant curries for which the Bo-Kaap is famous frequently call for saffron (or its cheaper cousin turmeric) as well as dried apricots which are a vital ingredient of dishes like sosaties or bobotie. Shocking? Novel? Hardly.

Flavours that still perturb me:

Seafood ice cream – I regard myself as a pretty broad-minded foodie. I eat oysters, I like ox tongue, and I have enjoyed wholegrain mustard ice cream as a garnish for a soup. But the Japanese take broadminded to a whole new level. Anybody keen for fish, squid, shrimp or eel ice cream? Nope, I didn't think so.

Chocolates filled with cheese – Paris chocolatier Jean-Paul Hevin makes cheese and chocolate appetisers and naturally I was dubious but curious. I got hold of some of these little cubes of French cheeses each paired with a flavour-enhancing dried fruit and coated in excellent chocolate and gave hubby one without telling him what it was. "These chocolates are off!", he cried, and sadly I have to agree. Never again.

Bananas on pizza – clearly against the Geneva Convention, and the Natural Order of Things. Just wrong, on so many levels.

So what unusual flavour combinations have you tried lately – and did they work?

Jeanne Horak-Druiff is the face behind the multi-award winning blog This ex-lawyer based in London now spends all her free-time cooking, photographing and eating good food.

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