I am a classic organic enthusiast. As an amateur cook, I’ve long felt that the difference between organic and non-organic fare is extremely obvious, not just in how the food tastes, but in how it looks, smells and feels. I’ve often given long-winded lectures on the superior flavour of organic meat and produce, and been rewarded with eye rolls and smirks. Recently, I decided to finally wipe clean the sceptical sneers from my subjects’ faces. I figured what better way to set folks straight then with a blind taste test.
Hugh Gardiner, the executive chef at Okku, kindly volunteered to host our tasting panel (which, in the interests of impartiality, I agreed not to participate in). Our testers were James Wilkinson, Time Out’s music and nightlife editor, Celia Topping, our photo editor, and Ele Cooper, the assistant editor of Time Out Kids. Gardiner made two different versions of a five-course meal for our taste testers. The results were surprising.
The panel was presented with two soups, one amber coloured, and another with a lighter, creamier hue.
James: ‘I prefer the lighter soup. It’s richer. I’d guess the lighter soup was the organic version.’
Ele: ‘I think I prefer the darker soup. To me, it has more flavour. It’s slightly sharper. It’s thinner, but I still prefer it. If I had to guess, I’d say the darker one was organic.’
Celia: ‘I prefer the lighter one. The dark one is too watery, and doesn’t have as much flavour. I’m guessing the lighter one is organic.’
Chef Gardiner: ‘I find cooking with organic miso kind of scary. It’s just a totally different texture. This has to do with the koji, one of the processing agents used in making miso.’
Seaweed salad topped with beetroot
Gardiner wasn’t able to locate organic seaweed, so that part of the salad remained unchanged. One version, however, employed organic beetroot, while another used non-organic beetroot from Holland. One version was noticeably moister and richer in colour.
James: ‘The darker beetroot is quite succulent. It’s sweeter and richer. In this version, it feels like the beetroot is part of the dish. The beetroot in the second version is dry and spindly; it feels like it’s just garnish. The darker version is definitely organic.’
Ele: ‘Can I just copy what he said?’
Celia: ‘I feel you can tell which is organic just from looking at the two samples. This darker one looks fresher and moister, and it’s much more intense when you taste it. The other version is bland and watery. The darker one is most definitely organic.’
Chef Gardiner: ‘I was really surprised by the results myself. I would have assumed that the darker beetroot was organic, because it’s just so much better tasting and better looking. But that wasn’t the case.’
Eggplant with miso
The first dish presented was chunky and dense-looking. The second dish was thinner, and the eggplant interior looked much softer.
James: ‘The second sample is much smokier-tasting, and much sweeter. In fact, I can taste the marinade, but I can’t really taste the eggplant. In the first sample, I can taste it more. I’m guessing the first is organic.’
Ele: ‘I prefer the second version. It’s lighter and not as dense, which I like. I think version two is organic.’
Celia: No way. The first is much meatier and has a lot more flavour. I like that it’s not as sweet. The second one is just too overwhelming; it’s more like a dessert. I’d assume the chunkier version is organic.’
Chef Gardiner: ‘I definitely noticed a difference cooking with these two versions. The organic eggplant is denser. Which do I prefer to cook with? Honestly, it really depends on cost – organic food is often just too expensive.’
Cucumber sushi roll
The two sushi rolls looked almost identical. Looking at them, it was impossible to distinguish which had organic cucumber and which didn’t.
James: ‘I think I can tell a difference, but I’m not sure. I think the second sample is slightly sweeter, and probably organic.’
Ele: ‘I disagree. I think the first sample is sweeter, and organic.’
Celia: ‘Honestly, I have no idea which is which. They taste the same to me.’
Chef Gardiner: ‘The organic cucumber is actually grown here in the UAE. I think it’s a great product. It reminds me of the cucumbers that would grow on the farms in Japan when I was a kid.’
The two versions of the lamb chops looked very different. One plate was full of plumper and fattier lamb chops, while the meat on the second plate was thinner and leaner.
James: ‘Mmmm. Mmm, mmmph. Sorry about that. Yes, this first lamb is much better. It’s juicy and tender. Here you can really taste the difference. I’m guessing the first lamb chop is organic.’
Ele: ‘Yes, the first lamb is definitely better. It’s so much softer and it just tastes amazing. The first one has to be organic.’
Celia: ‘Agreed. The first batch is much more succulent. It’s like night and day. The second batch is just OK. I’m going to go with the others and say the first is the organic version.’
Chef Gardiner: ‘I was surprised by the extent of the difference here. The organic was much fattier than the non-organic. As a result, it had a lot more flavour.’
The tasting panel was presented with two soy sauces: one dark and inky, the second lighter and more watery.
James: ‘I prefer the lighter sauce. The dark is more glutinous, and it’s much saltier. It smothers the food. The lighter soy sauce is much less abrasive. I can’t actually tell which is organic though.’
Ele: ‘The first soy sauce is really gloopy. I much prefer the second sauce. I’m guessing the lighter version is organic.’
Celia: ‘The lighter soy is much less offensive. The dark is too salty. The lighter version compliments the food, instead of overpowering it. I think the lighter might be organic, though I can’t really tell.’
Chef Gardiner: ‘The non-organic is actually our house blend. I would use the organic, but it’s just so salty; you can’t really taste the food through it.’
Our thanks go to Okku, The Monarch Dubai (04 501 8888), for hosting the event