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David Chang’s Unified Theory of Deliciousness

Stashed in: Good Eats!, Awesome, M.C. Escher, Yum, Taste!

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I like the concept of strange loops.

DeLong and Hofstadter both found great beauty in what the latter called strange loops—occasions when mathematical systems or works of art or pieces of music fold back upon themselves. M. C. Escher’s drawings are a great, overt example of this. Take his famous picture of two hands drawing each other; it’s impossible to say where it starts or ends. When you hit a strange loop like this, it shifts your point of view: Suddenly you aren’t just thinking about what’s happening inside the picture; you’re thinking about the system it represents and your response to it.

It was only recently that I had a realization: Maybe it’s possible to express some of these ideas in food as well. I may never be able to hear them or draw them or turn them into math. But I’ll bet I can taste them. In fact, looking back over the years, I think a version of those concepts has helped guide me to some of our most popular dishes.

Eating is transportation.

To me this is what separates the good dishes from the truly slap-yourself-on-the-forehead ones. When you eat something amazing, you don’t just respond to the dish in front of you; you are almost always transported back to another moment in your life. It’s like that scene in Ratatouille when the critic eats a fancy version of the titular dish and gets whisked back to the elemental version of his childhood.

The easiest way to accomplish this is just to cook something that people have eaten a million times. But it’s much more powerful to evoke those taste memories while cooking something that seems unfamiliar—to hold those base patterns constant while completely changing the context. The best restaurant roast chicken is going to be the one that, in some way, evokes the best roast chicken my mother ever made; but it’s more powerful if I’m reminded of my mother’s roast chicken while eating a dish that isn’t roast chicken. (Actually, people don’t realize this, but that’s exactly what happens in Ratatouille. That final dish is not in fact ratatouille, but the great chef Thomas Keller’s version of the great chef Michel Guerard’s version of a Turkish dish, Imam bayildi, that has the same flavors.)

The dish isn’t just a great meal in and of itself, but it’s referencing the underlying formal system—the relationship of flavors and textures—that makes it so delicious.

Strange loops that transport you through taste:

ULTIMATELY THIS WHOLE theory amounts to an argument for breaking down the barriers that prevent people from understanding delicious food from other cultures. Europeans like sauerkraut—but kimchi is this weird foreign entity. They’re both salty, rotten cabbage! It shows you just how shallow human nature is, for someone to say, oh I’ll eat this but I’d never eat that. That’s the dumbest thing in the world.

Hofstadter (yes, him again) had a different word for what I call base patterns. He called them isomorphisms, concepts that can be expressed in different ways while retaining their core form. He used the example of a record player. The groove in the record, the vibrations in your loudspeaker, the sound waves in the air: These are all different media, but they expresses the same underlying pattern.

That’s how I feel about food. Different cultures may use different media to express those base patterns—with different ingredients, for instance, depending on what’s available. But they are, at heart, doing the exact same thing. They are fundamentally playing the same music. And if you can recognize that music, you’ll blow people’s minds with a paradox they can taste: the new and the familiar woven together in a strange loop.

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