This is my definition of both taste and flavour.
Taste: sensation of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (savoury meaty taste) in the mouth, caused by a chemical reaction between the taste receptor cells and the substance in the mouth.
Flavour: The mixture of smell and taste.
One of the strange things that I discovered is that spiciness is not a taste. Instead it is just a form of pain!
Taste receptors (also known as taste buds) are located in and around papillae. There are 4 main types of papillae; foliate, circumvallate (triggers saliva production), fungiform (white bumps on your tongue) and filiform. Filiform papillae (the red part of your tongue) has no taste receptors. To sum it up:
Fungiform papillae: all over the tongue and they can sense all 5 tastes but depending on where they are located.
Bitter: Fungiform papillae + circumvallate papillae
Sour: Fungiform papillae: Fungiform papillae + Foliate papillae
Umami: I deduce that it triggers both sweet and salty taste receptors.
The human saliva is made up of digestive chemicals (enzymes and acids) which interact with the substance in our mouth and also starts the process called chemical digestion (in the digestive system there are both chemical and mechanical digestion).
If you think of your taste receptors as sensors (aka data collectors), it’s collecting the data from the suite of chemicals (the product of the saliva interacting with the substance) in our mouth and transmitting them to our brain which analyses them as sweet, sour, salty, bitter or umami.
Airborne odor molecules, called odorants, are detected by specialized sensory neurons located in a small patch of mucus membrane lining the roof of the nose. Axons of these sensory cells pass through perforations in the overlying bone and enter two elongated olfactory bulbs lying against the underside of the frontal lobe of the brain.
Odorants stimulate receptor proteins found on hairlike cilia at the tips of the sensory cells, a process that initiates a neural response. An odorant acts on more than one receptor, but does so to varying degrees. Similarly, a single receptor interacts with more than one different odorant, though also to varying degrees. Therefore, each odorant has its own pattern of activity, which is set up in the sensory neurons. This pattern of activity is then sent to the olfactory bulb, where other neurons are activated to form a spatial map of the odor. Neural activity created by this stimulation passes to the primary olfactory cortex at the back of the underside, or orbital, part of the frontal lobe. Olfactory information then passes to adjacent parts of the orbital cortex, where the combination of odor and taste information helps create the perception of flavor.
taken from brain facts.org
By the way, smell is also a key contributor to nostalgia or heavily linked to memories (of moments and places). We’ve touched on this in the first blog post, “Seasoned with Nostalgia”.
Apparently if you only tasted without smelling, the mouth only captures texture and just taste (sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami). Tests have been done on people tasting food without smelling and apparently, without smell, you won’t be able to tell the difference between a skinned raw potato and a slice of skinned apple. Coffee would also taste horrible (the flavour of coffee comes mainly from the smell).
Bearing all that in mind, that is also why different things taste different to different people (especially if their smell is impaired). There are so many different things that play very crucial parts in determining flavour; your saliva chemical make up, your taste receptors in picking up these chemicals, how acute your sense of smell is and how your brain analyses that information from the mouth and the nose.
So what makes a chef better than the other (besides technique)? It unfortunately is how sensitive that person is in terms of flavour recognition. Some call it a very sensitive palate (the model example would be the great French chef, Joel Robuchon). Can this be trained? Yes (but I also believe up to only a certain degree because of the human/hardware limitation). Also as we grow older, our taste buds die, so we are also left with as little as half of the initial number of taste buds. That makes us less sensitive to taste.
Old-schooled Japanese chefs are known to go through vigorous training of the palate. Some would eat a week of just rice, unsalted boiled cabbage and tofu for a week to “calibrate” their tastebuds. After a week, flavours are supposed to be more pronounced.
In Germany, there are also classes organised by the German Neurological Society teaching people how to recognise flavours.
Then there is this. Flavour wheels developed by many different associations. There’s one for coffee, wine, whiskey, chocolate, maple syrup, seafood, etc. Using these can also help us to train our palate.
The importance of this topic is the fact that there is no right or wrong answer to how a flavour is to one person or another. There is only a more right answer than another (*wink wink*) However, to be a brilliant chef, being able to understand how flavours are created (smell + taste) is important. Having a sensitive palate can make a difference in the food we produce. For example, did you know that the herb rosemary is more of a smell than a taste? It is actually bitter in the mouth. So we don’t necessarily need to eat the herb, instead we can release its aroma in the food we cook and to the person enjoying it, it will come across as a flavour. In fact most herbs are also that way, they are more of a smell than a taste.
Food photos from a visit to Odette, Singapore (2015)
For a change try this. When you consume something, enjoy it slowly. Engage all your senses. Don’t get distracted by a book, your smart phone, or your train of thoughts. Maybe not for all your meals, but for those that are special, try that. Be present in that moment. Let your senses take it all in (close your eyes if you need to when tasting, it’s supposed to heighten your other senses) and allow your brain register that moment. Then turn to your companion and share that moment. After all, no good meal is ever complete without good company.