Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Matter of Taste: Notes for Cooks

It’s no secret that Chefs don’t suffer fools gladly. Weeding them out before they get into your kitchen and ruin service can be difficult, but there are ways. Many years ago, I had a phone interview that consisted of a single question, “How long does it take to boil an egg?” I replied that it depended on how big it was, and was told to come in the next day for a trial.

You see, an egg is not an egg. It may well be a quail or emu egg. And though this example may refer to size and cooking times, most variations occur in the sphere of taste. To be good cooks we must realise that all ingredients have their own qualities that are dependent on origin, seasonality and variety. Though we may rely on most recipes as clear maps to a culinary destination, we must appreciate that sometimes the terrain changes.

The case in point may be the recipes on this blog, composed with Mexican ingredients but to be made with whatever is available to you. Are my tomatoes sweeter? My lime juice more astringent? How do we now how to alter the quantities to get the dish to taste right? Really, we must think whilst tasting, and trust our own sense of where to guide the dish to get it to taste right. But what is taste, and in what manner can we think about it?

We developed taste as an independent sense when animals moved from the sea to land, losing gills and gaining follicles. As the sea conveys all chemicals through the same medium of water, there was no need to have a separate “distant chemical sense” of smell, and an “immediate chemical sense”, taste. Now land dwellers, we use smell to sense our surroundings and interpret flavour and taste as a final checkpoint before letting substances enter our bodies.

Taste, as a noun, is a function of the nervous system which indicates the presence of one or more of five sensations: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. Umami translates from Japanese roughly as “savoriness”, and comes from the amino acid glutamate, a naturally occurring relative to MSG. Umami is the result of proteins breaking down by cooking or aging. Parmesan, aged beef and fish sauce all contain good amounts of glutamate, and as such tend to be “more-ish”, probably the defining characteristic of umami.

Perhaps you have heard of a tongue map, a diagram which supposedly demonstrates how this organ perceives different tastes in different areas. Even as a kid with a crumpled apron and a floor to mop, I remember being taught the idea that we taste salt here, sweet here, sour here etc. Happily this myth has been debunked: we taste all sensations with all parts of the tongue. This came as a relief to me, as I recall thinking I wouldn’t be very good at this job. I seemed to be able to taste salt or lemon wherever I placed it on my tongue. I had decided my apparatus faulty but really the idea was flawed, an enduring and contagious idea that lived far too long, born of
a simple mistranslation of a German text.

Though it can be hard to describe what we taste, why we taste is more empirically known. Taste provides us with signals that guide us through our omnivores dilemma of what to eat (read Michael Pollan), and we have evolved these senses as the food we eat has evolved. Taste informs us that we might have a bitter toxin in our mouth, if the fruit we eat is sweet and ripe, or that the salt we require for health and hydration is present. In fact, it is fair to say that your tongue is your on-board nutritional guide, one which has served us much better than food industry fads for nutrients, or back-of-label information we usually can’t understand.

And so if we can only sense five different tastes, how is it we seem to have an un-ending experience of new tastes? The process of “tasting”, now as a verb, is complex and involves all five senses to a degree. When we interpret flavour, we are using chemical receptors in taste and smell first, then bundling that information with sight, touch and hearing to create an opinion of what we are eating. There are so many variables in each of these senses, coupled with our psychological impressions of what is being eaten.

But if the inclusion of all the senses seems a little remote from the everyday reality, well, it’s not at all. There is no need to picture scenes of haute cuisine protruding rudely upward from the plate, accompanied by a baroque quartet and a manicure between courses.

Really, its much simpler: taste and smell give us our chemical readings translated as flavour. With touch we perceive texture and temperature, as well as mouthfeel and sensations such as the fizz of a carbonated drink, or the burn of a chile. Visual and aural join to inform us to a smaller degree. The final filter is our mind, where all these messages culminate granting our psychological reading has a huge bearing. Our minds influence is the reason food always tastes better when we are hungry, why foods we have had before are more agreeable, and why
no-one cooks a roast quite like mum.

With this many combinations, tasting is a truly limitless subjective experience. If we all take a bite of the same thing, it will elicit a very different response in each of us. Describing how you personally taste something is much like the parable of the three blind men trying to describe an elephant (the first man felt the trunk, the other a leg, the last an ear. None could agree it had been the same animal). When our tastes are only calibrated by our own experience, we never really know what it is anyone else is sensing.

If that’s the case, what’s the point in trying to master flavour at all? Speaking for myself, when I cook something just the way I like it, knowing how to get it there has its own rewards. But when cooking for others, there are a number of things that work by and large, for everyone. Essentially we want balance and response from these tastes, we want to pair the right ingredients in the right proportions to excite the appetite, engage in the push and pull of flavours and have a happy ending.

In upcoming articles we will talk about the tongue pyrotechnics of chile, why cloves are good for a toothache and why toothpaste and orange juice can’t get along. And on a more practical note, we’ll look at ways we can delight the palate by manipulating tastes, and how to get that balance of flavours by using a few little tricks of the trade.


  1. Just to clever for words..... I read this while munching through some of Dads Tuna rissoles with mash and peas.... it all tasted very different from previous times when I thought of what I was reading and put all my senses into practice ...this experience coincides with the new wise quote I have for today "be realistic;plan for a miracle