Tuesday, 5 February 2013


I have been thinking about Taste. 

Taste - Taste, gustatory perception, or gustation is one of the five traditional senses. Taste is the sensation produced when a substance in the mouth reacts chemically with receptors of taste buds.

Any mention of taste usually refers to 4 basic tastes - sweet, sour, bitter, salt - and the 'newly' discovered 5th taste, umami.

To me this seems like a thoroughly unhelpful over-simplification. I began to consider this after eating some Chinese food. One of the ingredients was sesame oil. I would describe sesame oil as having a nutty taste. I can't see how it could be described in terms of sweet, sour, bitter or salty. Or umami, if we believe the definition of umami as 'meaty/savoury'.

I started looking into the subject. The place to start seemed to the the 'map of the tongue' which most of us might remember from school. The idea being that certain area on the tongue are responsible for noticing certain tastes. This idea has since been shown to be cobblers - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tongue_map. I hope it isn't still being taught in schools.

If you take the bother to read that article, or others, (e.g. http://www.cf.ac.uk/biosi/staffinfo/jacob/teaching/sensory/taste.html) you'll see that it is now understood that all tastes are experienced by taste buds on the tongue, inner cheeks, soft palate, epiglottis and in the throat.

Then I started reading, and watching more stuff about Taste. This led me to Stuart Firestein. He is the Chair of Columbia University's Department of Biological Sciences and has recorded a number of videos about taste. One such video, particularly useful to me, explains the difference between taste and flavour

Seems I've been confusing, or at least not clearly distinguishing between Taste and Flavour. Flavour is a combination of taste, smell, texture (touch sensation) and other physical features (e.g. temperature). It seems Taste might be a bit of blunt instrument. It's useful to identify basic tastes, which would seem to correspond with food that is good for us (sweet, salty, 'umami') and food which is bad for us (bitter, sour).

But then I found an article which suggests that there might be 20 basic tastes, and that there's certainly strong evidence for fat as a sixth taste. That aside, it seems that of primary importance in Taste and Flavour is the olfactory system - which is how we smell.

When you start looking into how we smell, you come across some fascinating information. Here's another video from Stuart Firestein - The Evolutionary Paradox of our Sense of Smell.

I only really decided to start looking into Taste to see if there was anything out there which to suggest that it is more sophisticated than 4 or 5 basic tastes! I'm beginning to see that its much more sophisticated, and shouldn't really be seen in isolation, at least when it comes to food.

So how can I make use of tastes and flavours to make my food better? Actually, before I get there, it's worth directing to you to yet another video. I'll be honest, it's worth watching them all. This one explains what happens in the body and brain when you smell something. The surprising information here is that higher-brain functioning of smell happens quickly, with smell messages passing through only 2 synapses before being processed. It seems our bodies have developed in a way which places a very high priority on identifying smells.

Having looked at the senses involved with Taste I think I'm still a long way from understanding how to combine tastes and flavours to produce tasty food. More research needed, and that will involve trying to learn more about Niki Segnit and The Flavour Thesaurus.

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