In southeast Asian cooking, a balance of four flavors is prized: heat from chiles or pepper; sourness from tamarind, lime or vinegar; sweetness from sugar; and saltiness from fish sauce or soy sauce. A well-made dish should demonstrate a complex interplay among these tastes, reaching a level as sophisticated as anything in French haute cuisine or in India's intricate spice blends. The other night I made a Thai dish with obvious sources for all these tastes, but proved that including certain ingredients is far from executing the dish at a high level.
The dish in question was "Tangy Bean Thread Noodles with Cilantro and Lime" from Quick and Easy Thai by Nancie McDermott. After preparing the bean thread noodles by soaking them in hot water, then draining and cutting them into shorter lengths, you stir-fry two tablespoons of chopped shallots and one tablespoon of chopped garlic in vegetable oil for a minute. Then you add a quarter of a cup of chopped meat of your choice (I used pork this time), toss, and add two tablespoons of fish sauce and one teaspoon of soy sauce. Stir-fry the meat until done, then remove from the heat and mix in the noodles. Let stand until it reaches room temperature (I omitted this step, opting to eat while hot) and add two teaspoons of sugar, one teaspoon of dried red chile flakes, and two tablespoons each of lime juice, chopped scallions, and fresh cilantro or mint. Wrap in lettuce leaves, if desired, to serve.
Rather than getting an interplay of the four flavors, I wound up with a single blended taste that wasn't bad, but wasn't tangy, either. It wasn't nearly as spicy as it should've been; maybe the omission of scallions (the ones I had on hand were played out) had something to do with it, but the chile flakes didn't live up to their end of the bargain, either. The other flavors seemed more muted than enhanced by the combination, as if they were cancelling each other out. I'm sure this wasn't the intent of the recipe.
Just another example of how you can cook a meal and follow the recipe, yet end up light-years away from the way the food "should" taste.