Flavor – Is there such a thing as a dish being bland from too many flavors


My girlfriend has asked for my opinion on a few dishes that she has been experimenting with, and not being particularly well-versed in the language used to discuss food, I have been having trouble expressing my opinion on two specific dishes (namely, a stew using ground beef and a Thai curry with chicken).

I have eaten several different versions of both dishes over several months, so I have developed a pretty good sense of which versions of them I like the best. We have also tried similar dishes from local restaurants in order to have a common reference point. Generally, I think that the dishes taste fine, but sometimes I feel that they become "bland" (for lack of a better word) from too many spices.

What I mean is that sometimes when she prepares them she will use only a few specific spices or none at all and more fresh ingredients. To me, these versions taste the best. They have strong, distinct flavors, and I think that they taste more like the restaurant dishes that we've compared them to. However, she usually finds these versions under-seasoned, so she also experiments with adding lots of different spices. When she does this, she still isn't happy with the result but she says that the dishes taste more "complete" or more "harmonious" or just generally better. On the other hand, I think that these versions taste same-y or bland, which she doesn't understand since there are objectively more flavors in the dish. I have tried to describe it like the flavor equivalent of that color of brown you get when you mix all the paints together or if an orchestra just played all the instruments at once without regard to the timing.

To me, these versions sort of feel like filling in all the nooks and crannies of the flavor landscape to make the experience boring and flat. She says that I just don't understand flavor and that that's not a thing that happens. She says that adding more flavors complement and round-out the taste.

I am nowhere near as knowledgeable about food words as my girlfriend, and she also has a much more sensitive and discerning palate than I do. So it may be possible that I am just a bad food critic, but I would really like to understand my experience better and hopefully communicate it better to my girlfriend. My question is this: Is there such a thing as "the flavor equivalent of the color brown" in the sense that too many different flavors can make food sort of taste bland? If so, is there a technical way to describe that sensation?

Best Answer

With your longer description, I can understand where you are coming from and why you don't like this version of the dishes (and also why somebody else might prefer them). But the term "bland" you chose is unfortunate, and is predestined to create misunderstandings.

"Bland" is a word with a rather well-circumscribed meaning, and means that there is an absence of taste and flavor. To use your color analogy, "bland" would be applied most directly to something that is ecru colored, and, less fitting but still understood, to something that has its own color tone but so little pigment that it is still nearly white. For food, imagine maybe a pudding made with starch and water, nothing else, that would be a quintessential experience of bland food.

The experience you describe doesn't have a unique term, and the descriptive ones I can think of are non-technical. The most specific one I can come up with is "mingled flavors", although this one doesn't strongly evoke that the speaker disapproves of the extent of mingling. You can choose whatever you like and best reflects your own subjective experience. Some examples would be to call it "conflicting", "chaotic" or "overwhelming" taste combinations. Or, if you prefer to continue the metaphors from other senses, you can use "cacaphonous taste" or, more diplomatically, "lack of contrast".

I would also like to mention that your experience here does not validate hers, she is also just as right as you are, and finding a term will not lead to an agreement between you as to what the perfect dish should be. Every one of you has a set point for enjoyable taste, expects to find it in the dish, and is dissatisfied when the dish misses that point. What overwhelms your experience is well-rounded for her, and what is nicely focused to you is boringly one-dimensional for her. In keeping with your color comparison, insisting that only one of the two positions is "right" would be like insisting that painting like Franz Marc is "right" and painting like Caspar David Friedrich is "wrong", or the other way round.