Taste is more than just the five flavours – salty, bitter, sweet, sour and umami. It is affected by even stranger things than your five senses. Taste and its weird ways may even have something to do with why fine dining restaurants insist upon serving us up such small serving despite the extravagant prices…
Today, like almost every other minute of every other day, I find myself thinking of taste. Going back to my university days I remember a few very interesting facts about the psychology of taste that go beyond a mere lavishing salt and butter on your food to give it more flavour – not to say this trick won’t work!
Now you don’t need a psychology degree to know about the different taste receptors on our tongues. Bitter, salty, sweet and sour. You may even have heard of the relatively recently discovered (by science that is – the Japanese have known about this flavour for hundreds of years) taste, umami.
Umami is the indescribable flavour of savoury goodness derived from the amino acid glutamate. Glutamate – or umami – is most commonly found in kombu, Parmesan cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms, soy sauce, meat and MSG amongst other things. And the presence of it in your food makes it taste indescribably delicious and savoury. Hence why the aforementioned ingredients are such popular mainstays of so many meals and cuisines.
But I digress. Most people know about the five flavours or flavour receptors on our tongue. Most of us know that sweet will balance (or cancel out) sour and vice versa. People are less aware that the same goes for bitter and salty.
Take for example salt in chocolate (if you haven’t tried salted chocolate then you haven’t tried the best chocolate has to offer!). A little salt makes the chocolate taste sweeter. The saltiness counteracts the bitterness and therefore makes the chocolate seem sweeter.
Another way to test this is to add some salt to a glass of tonic water – which contains the bitter flavour from quinine – and see how much sweeter it suddenly tastes! You can also add bitter tasting mesclun salad leaves to an over salted meal to fix your seasoning woes.
Cooking – or getting taste into your food – is all about balancing the five flavours. All of the best recipes have a perfect balance of most of the five flavours, desserts included (perhaps umami excluded, in the case of desserts).
Different amounts of particular flavours will in fact increase certain other flavours – think back to the above example of adding salt to chocolate. The net effect is the chocolate tasting sweeter, not saltier. In fact salt will enhance all of the five flavours which is why it is the number one additive to food around the world. It just makes everything taste more! So learn how to manipulate taste with the use of ingredients that are salty, sweet, sour, bitter or umami and the variations of which will throw up some fascinating flavours.
Perhaps most interesting thing of all when it comes to the perception of taste, is how smell, sound, texture and vision affect the taste of ingredients. Don’t believe me? Try eating a whole cabbage leaf versus one that has been chopped into a fine chiffonade and tell me that they taste the same. Or try blocking your nose and eating your meal – you will soon find that flavour is completely lacking. Leaving a piece of tempura to sit for an hour before eating it with no crunch and you will see it is not as satisfying as the fresh crispy piece. Or eating with a blind fold on. You will soon find that these factors will incredibly change the experience of your meal.
Why is this you may ask? The answer is of course complicated and varied, but simply put, all of your five senses (hearing, vision, smell, taste and touch – not the five flavours) work in harmony to help the other senses. The sense of taste is the best example of this. The way a food is broken down in your mouth, the heat of it and its consistency all change your perception of flavour. Very hot and very cold food will taste less flavoursome than moderately heated or moderately cold food, which is why things like ice cream custard needs to be extra sweet before it is frozen. This also explains why we all love chocolate so much. Cacao butter (the fat used in good chocolate) happens to turn from solid to liquid – i.e. it melts – at almost exactly the same temperature as your tongue. Put a piece of chocolate in your mouth and it instantly melts which releases all kinds of volatile flavour compounds carried within the fat.
Studies have even shown that if you listen to a crunching sound while eating crunchy food it will make the food seem even more crispy than it actually is. If you listen to crunching sounds while eating soft food (such as ice cream) then you will experience a weird sensation of knocking your teeth together. This is because the crunching sound triggers your brain think it is crunching down on something hard and causes your muscle jaw to relax so as not to break your teeth on something brittle, while the nerves in your mouth will experience only smoothness. This in turn confuses your senses and causes your jaw to chomp down to see what is going on. If you have a recording device I suggest you try it by playing back the crunching noises through headphones, it is quite bizarre.
And then there is the chewing gum trick. We all know that how chewing gum loses its flavour about 5 minutes after you first started chewing it. Yet if you take the chewing gum out of your mouth and leave it for a few hours and then put it back into your mouth it seems as though the flavour comes back briefly? This is because your brain learns to associate flavours together.
When you first put the chewing gum into your mouth it is covered in a sugary coating or at least has sugar or sweetness in it. Pretty soon the sugar dissolves and disappears. Your brain has already associated the minty flavour of the gum along with the sugar. So when the sugar disappears, your brain stops associating the minty flavour it was perceiving.
The minty flavour is in fact still there. It lasts for hours. If you put the gum aside for a while your brain loses the association somewhat which is why you can taste the mint again. You can try eating a teaspoon of sugar water once your gum has ‘lost its flavour’ and you will see that it instantly comes back as long as the sugar lasts in your mouth. This is one of the reasons why the more salt, sugar or chilli you add to your food the more you will find you have to add in the future to get the same taste.
And finally, there is the reason why so many fine dining restaurants serve up such small helpings. It is not just to squeeze more money out of you and leave you feeling hungry and unsatiated. The reason why they do this is because your brain actually tires of flavour quite quickly. If you keep eating the same flavour for any period of time that flavour will significantly diminish. Whereas if you only eat a little bit of something then your brain perceives the most amount of flavour without ‘getting bored’. This is an important factor in feeling satiated, but also an important factor in getting the most flavour out of your food. If this is what you are after, do what the fine dining restaurants do and serve up many small dishes with differing flavours. Just don’t expect feel as full as quickly.
Taste really is in the eyes, nose, mouth and ears of the beholder.