“Crunch is so universally appreciated that whenever I finish a recipe, I ask myself, ‘Is there any way to add a little more crunch?’ Often it makes the difference between a dish that is merely good and one that is miraculous. In short, if in doubt, crunch it.” – Chef Michel Richard, Happy in the Kitchen
I couldn’t agree more with Chef Richard. Properly crispy latkes, the well-browned cheese atop lasagna, a simple but crispy corn quesadilla, or good homemade breadcrumbs on a rich gratin are great favorites of mine.
And in contrast to those dry, shattering crunchy bits, there is the refreshing crunch of fresh vegetable garnishes, like the carrot, daikon and onion in this Vietnamese bun, or the kohlrabi slaw adorning roasted potato and asparagus tacos.
Pretty much everyone loves crispiness, whether it is the timid addition of crackers to soup, the all encompassing chomp through a bowl of granola, the balanced crisp and soft of French fries, or the shockingly irreversible shatter of crème brûlée.
But why? Why do we love the crunch?
Chef Richard’s answer is that our caveperson ancestors came to associate it with food that has been cooked, rendering it more nutritious (don’t freak out, raw foodies, I’m just paraphrasing him), and delicious due to the Maillard reactions. That might be part of it, but I’ve got some other theories to offer as well.
I asked this question on the new Herbivoracious fan page on Facebook (which I hope you will join right away), and got some interesting answers. One reader (Anne) perceptively suggested that it is because crispy is so often tightly associated with the goodness of deep fried fat and salt.
Others (Amy, and my old friend Dan) pointed out the importance of contrast. Crispy is good. Crispy and soft in the same dish or same bite can be transporting.
Then there is the sound. I think we enjoy eating most when it speaks to all of our senses. The sound of crunch travels right through our jawbones to our ears, adding an electrifying dimension to the experience.
Finally, there is the simple thrill of physically breaking through. The crispy crust first resists your teeth, then yields with a satisfying snap. Your jaw muscles actually work hard to render the food ready to swallow and digest. Crunchy food requires you to actually engage with the eating experience, not passively consume.
So let’s not be careful out there, people. Let’s thrown caution to the wind, and run that dish under the broiler, finish it with breadcrumbs or sesame seeds. Let’s add a cracker or a chip, a tuille or croquant. Let’s top it with cucumbers or radishes or thin rings of green onion. Let’s make a little noise!