ALL IN THE BEST POSSIBLE TASTE
The recent news that we now have another taste to the five we already possess is big news in foodie world. Taste often gets confused with flavour of course but they are not the same. The simple difference is that flavour encompasses aroma or smells too whereas taste is just that, how things we eat or drink feel on our little hairs or buds called papillae sticking out on our tongue, palate and back of the throat. Contrary to common belief the various tastes of sweet, sour, bitter/acidic, salty and umami/meaty are not in separate locations in the mouth but all mixed up.
The ancient Chinese matched them to the five elements of fire, water, earth, wood and metal and others here in Europe historically matched them to musical notes stating there were seven tastes. It is disputed whether metallic and pungent should be classified also so that would indeed make seven. Either way they are essential to us humans and especially chefs so when we start to cook the one thing I always advocate is the training of tasting to make sure you can detect if something is right or wrong and you can only do this by tasting nonstop.
Of course not everyone can taste, some people are just not naturally equipped on their palette to sense what they are feeling when they eat something. Some people are actually taste blind just like we have colour blindness. Literally they taste nothing and it can be very frustrating if you are trying to emphasise how great a dish is and it’s catastrophic if you want to be a cook.
Our tastebuds are in their prime when we are young and gradually deteriorate as we age and even more so if we smoke or have bad oral hygiene along the way. Some have highly developed tasting ability and actually use this skill for working in say quality control food and drink labs. Foods also need to be at the right temperature for them to taste just right so the likes of sweet and bitter tastes are very far away if the food is too hot or cold.
We do have to over season some foods that are cooked hot but served cold as the flavour will be lessened by the temperature drop. Other foods have a natural amount of seasoning and need nothing at all to taste just right when they are ripe with just perfect levels of sweetness in a fruit for example or saltiness in an oyster. With everyone having different levels of tasting ability then it becomes a very subjective matter of opinion also.
We have what is termed the taste mountain in cooking where we season gently at each step of the dish as if we were climbing a mountain and when it peaks at the top that is when it is perfectly flavoured and if we keep on seasoning then it’s down the other side and the dish is ruined unless it can be rectified.
As you get better at cooking you need to take less and less tasting steps and if really good you might nail a dish without tasting at all which is always risky but when you do something hundreds of times you just know when its spot on. So the last new taste umami was officially recognised a few years ago even though the Japanese had acknowledged it for a century and it’s the meaty or savoury taste you get in meat, fish, cheese and vegetables like tomatoes and mushrooms.
The new one just announced is our ability to actually taste ammonium chloride which a form of is already harmlessly used in sweets like liquorice. We probably developed this in order to make us able to detect poison which is no surprise when you think of the amount of natural substances that can harm us.
Ammonium is toxic and is found naturally in animal and environmental waste and these days in the likes of fertilizer. Across the animal kingdom there is innate sensitivity to it so we then are no different. Mosquitoes smell it on our sweaty skin and know we are rich pickings. It was well known about our ability to smell it but not so much to taste it and this is why it is news not that we want to be tasting it very much anyway.