Because it’s hard to talk about spice without talking about flavor, here we are. What is it exactly? How does it work? What does it all mean in the world of cooking and eating?
As far as we have come, we have our limitations when it comes to understanding what taste really is. So, we’ve accepted the 4 pillars of taste receptors; where they are located and how it affects our food choices and even how it speaks to our personality. Or have we?
A Quick Story…
I know a particular child, who, when offered any food, his first inclination is to smell it. Each time I wonder the same thing… What’s up with that? What’s going on in is his big brain and small body that brings about the very same reaction before he eats his food. The simple answer: we perceive taste firstly as aroma. Our nose, our sense of smell is our guide. Working with the gatekeepers, the tongue and mouth, we charter a mission to define our own personal preference, when it comes to flavor.
The Nose Knows…
What does sense of smell have to do with the flavor of food? A whole lot. In fact, it is the dominant factor in sensing flavor in your food. Smell is to flavor as soil is to the plant. Some, like Gordon Shepard at Yale School of Medicine has gone so far to say that, without smell, there is no flavor and his book Neurogastronomy gives more insight for those looking to delve deeper. When we sniff or perceive the aroma of a given food, we use a different part of our smell capability, it happens externally and internally, within the back of our mouths, even with food in it.
Smell gives way to flavor when we exhale and the vapor from the food stimulates our cells in our nose. It is really about the perception of aroma. Flavor is actually a fusion of sorts: smell, taste and tangible sensations. Lucky for us, our sense of smell is reflected in the most developed part of our brain, the frontal cortex, which then decodes the combination of sensations as taste.
Flavor can also be distorted simply by altering our sense of smell. Most of us have tried or experienced this at some point in our eating life (or not). When we hold our nose, taste becomes empty, when we are sick, our favorite food, may become our worst enemy. So how can we simplify taste to what we experience on different areas our tongue as we have been taught since most of us can remember.
To Taste is to Feel…
That’s because the taste map is not quite accurate. Our taste buds actually taste all flavors and this can be learned through self-awareness and not science alone. The four basic tastes may be a basis, but there’s more. The Japanese introduced a fifth, umami and the French are toying with the idea of a 6th, our response to fat. And the Japanese have done it again and embarked on a seventh taste. Why not eight? Nine? Ten? Why not millions?
When it comes to flavor, we are all wired differently, and it may have more to do with biology than with preference. The very same food may resonate totally differently with every eater. Each of our experiences with and towards food is unique to the individual.
This is one aspect of food science that fast and convenient foods companies have down, how to reach millions of palates with a homogenous formula that appeals to most. It also an aspect of scientific cooking that most chefs have a good grip on that allows them to create flavors that please the palates of most, rather than the few. As a chef, the combining of unusual ingredients and search for new flavor is one of the most stimulating qualities of the art.
Without the vocabulary to describe the intricacies in a dish, what we do know is, if we like it or not. Remember the nose. Much of which can be “tasted” are molecules released during cooking. The truth is in the smell. The aroma alone gives our senses great insight and helps us decide to go deeper, to open our mouths to the experience. It seems to make sense that the basic building blocks of complex tastes may rely on the 4 basic, but this should not be our stopping point. Why reduce this beautifully complex system to sweet, salt, sour, bitter and even savory. Why compromise our wholeness on this resilient quest for flavor? We may not have a name for it. Science may be lagging behind. But, one easy way to capture the complexity and pleasure of a flavor is through feeling. And sometimes, that’s just enough. In experimenting with new tastes or flavors, tune-up, turn-up, your emotions. Release them like molecules. Smell it. Feel it. Then of course, eat it!