Part 1: How do we taste?

Dani tasting food.jpg

“I taste fantastic!” one reader jestingly says. “With my tongue!” says another. “I don't anymore” sadly says the reader that survived a terrible bite from a red-bellied black snake a couple of years ago. Yes, you read that right. Red-belly black snake venom can, in some people, have the strange side effect of messing with one's ability to taste and smell and it can be a delayed reaction. It's also been reported that some people recovering from various strains of Covid have lost their sense of taste and smell, or worse yet for some, messed up their sense of taste and smell in a way that makes everything smell and taste terrible for them.

Our tongue has taste buds which detect chemicals in food and tell us what it tastes like. Our sense of smell is linked to and very important for our sense of taste. If you block your nose before putting something in your mouth so you can't smell it, it may taste different, or for some people it may seem to have no taste at all. Our brain also plays a large role in how we taste things; after all, it's our brain that receives the signals from our nose and mouth and deciphers those signals. If those signals aren't getting through to the brain properly, or if the section of the brain that does the interpreting isn't functioning as well as it should, things will smell and taste different, or have no taste and smell at all.

As for our taste buds themselves, they function by proteins reacting to the chemicals in the food, which our brains interpret as taste sensations. These proteins can be messed with by the things we put in our mouth. If you've ever tasted something soon after brushing your teeth with a strong flavoured toothpaste, you'll know that it changes the way food and drink tastes for some time afterwards. There's also a berry, Synsepalum dulcificum, commonly called the miracle berry, that when chewed on will make everything you taste for a while afterwards taste quite different - even the most sour of lemons will seem to taste very sweet and delicious after chewing on a miracle berry. If you ever go to a wine tasting, stay away from the cheese and chew on fresh apple slices instead. Cheese will mask the true taste of the wine, whereas apples will enhance it.

There have been five types of chemically induced taste sensations scientifically identified so far:

Umami = Often described as “earthy”, this taste sensation comes from high levels of glutamate, found naturally in many foods including meat, tomatoes, mushrooms, nuts, cheese, and grape juice.

Sweet = This is the taste of simple carbohydrates, which is found in sugars, honey, maple syrup, fruits, vegetables, and grains.

Bitter = This commonly unappreciated taste comes from polyphenols, flavonoids, isoflavones, glucosinolates and terpenes, which are found in leaves, nuts, fruits and vegetables. Tea, coffee, and beer are common popular mildly bitter beverages.

Sour = Carboxylic acids are responsible for making foods sour. Citric acid in lemons, malic acid in apples, acetic acid in vinegar, and lauric acid in coconut oil are some of the different common types of carboxylic acids found in food.

Salty = This taste sensation comes from sodium chloride, more commonly known as salt. Not everything that is high in salt will taste salty however, because salt can also aid to reduce bitterness and increase sweetness, which is why a pinch of salt works for sweetening coffee in place of a spoonful of sugar. The sodium ion which creates the salty taste sensation can also be associated with larger other anions (things other than chloride) to create different tastes, such as in the case of monosodium glutamate which creates an umami flavour.

Taste is one of the least scientifically understood senses that we have, because it was never really researched much until recent decades. Just because science has only found us to have five taste receptors on our tongues, that doesn't mean they're the only ones. It's suspected that we may also have taste receptors for fats as well, but that's yet to be conclusively proven. There was an old myth that still persists today that our taste buds are divided up into different zones on our tongue, but it's been proven false, which is why you can put salt on what was claimed to be the “sweet taste zone” of your tongue and you'll still be able to taste it and it'll still taste salty.

When different tastes are combined in different ratios, it creates different flavours, but taste is not just a physical sensation on our tongue. In more recent years it's been realised that the texture and even the appearance and colour of food has a lot to do with what it tastes like, and a lot of that is tied in with our psychology, that is, our brain. In the case of cilantro, also known as coriander, genetics plays a role in how it tastes to us. To some people it tastes lovely, fresh, citrusy, and earthy. To others it tastes like soap. What flavours we like varies not just on factors such as this, but also what we grew up with. The cultural foods we are raised with has a very strong affect upon what flavours, and how much flavour, we can appreciate.

Combine different tastes together in different ratios, and you get different flavours. That's why is food and beverages are often described with words such as minty, peppery, herbal, pungent, rich, floral, and nutty. The more of a specific flavour we add to a food, the stronger that particular flavour gets.

The use of herbs and spices in cooking is all about enhancing, adding, and creating different flavours. Each individual herb and spice has it's own unique combination of chemicals creating it's own unique taste sensation and thus flavour. When different herbs and spices are combined with each other and other foods, there's almost no limit to what different flavours our meals can have.

One thing to keep in mind when learning to cook with herbs is don't be afraid of experimenting. No one ever came up with a great recipe without some experimenting, some trial and error, and a willingness to try it again with a variation of less or more or the addition of something else. Use them fresh in one meal, then dry roast them and try them that way with the same meal next time, see which version you like the most. And make notes of what you use and how it turned out so you can refer to your experiments and know what worked well and what didn't. If you're unsure of how much to use and you're not following a recipe, to save you from overwhelming your meal, add a little at a time, taste testing along the way until you reach a level that you like.

Now that you've learned that taste can be affected by quite a variety of things, from venoms and diseases, genetics and brain function, what else we've had in our mouth, and our culture and what we were raised to eat, it should come as no surprise to you that just because one person thinks something tastes fantastic, it doesn't mean someone else is going to agree. If you like what you cook, that's fantastic! At the very least you can now feed yourself. If someone else likes it too, that's a bonus. If someone doesn't like it, don't take it personally, they just might have a strange sense of taste, or none at all. ;)