Food and the Senses (Part 2)
Last time in our FATS series, we looked at how salt and sugar affect our eating experience. In case you missed it, check out part 1 first . With that sorted, it’s now time to move on and deal with the other three tastes, starting with sour.
On the surface, sourness appears revolting; that intense, almost pricking sensation which makes your face wince and mouth pucker. The culinary term for sourness, acidity, makes it sound even more sinister. Clearly, it doesn’t lure you in like a spoonful of sugar. But look around, and you might be overwhelmed by the number of intensely sour candies on offer : Sour patch kids, center shock and these “Zour bombs”, coated and filled with a face wincing sherbet powder. How do such apparently revolting concoctions even sell?
Sourness (surprise, surprise), plays a pivotal role in our mouth. Acids in sour foods stimulate our salivary glands strongly allowing them to secrete more saliva. More saliva causes dissolution of flavour compounds, leading to a greater perception of taste. Sour foods, therefore, are literally mouth-watering.
Sour ingredients like lime and vinegar add an element of freshness to a rich dish. A piece of tandoori chicken or beer-battered fish springs to life with a squeeze of lime or lemon, which helps to balance out the fats and spices in them. At the same time, sour ingredients like lime juice and red wine vinegar have their characteristically unique flavours which, like the black salt or the maple syrup we talked about last time, adds another level of complexity to the dish.
Which brings us to bitter, the Ringo Starr of Flavourtown’s Fab Four. It has such a disrepute that it bears connotations of unpleasantness (think bitter truth). And there’s reason for it too. Early man tended to stay away from bitter stuff as most bitter-tasting foods in the wild tended to contain poisonous compounds like alkaloids. This avoidance, over millennia, has morphed into a general disdain for all things bitter. Even someone as stern as Mary Poppins recommended a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
However, if you think about it, you’ll realise that most of our favourite things (the Julie Andrews references stop here, I promise) are infact, bitter. Think chocolate, coffee, marmalade and tonic water (with a splash of gin, of course). The Bengalis have an entire array of bitter dishes in their repertoire to start off the meal, ranging from the simple neem begoon to the subtle yet infinitely complex shukto. But that will have to wait for some other week.
Finally, we’ve reached the fifth taste: the Higgs Boson of the taste universe. Although savouriness has been around for long, it was only recently discovered that the savouriness of meats and some other foods is not a combination of the four basic tastes, rather it is detected by a separate set of taste buds responsive to a compound called glutamate, making it a distinct taste. It was first scientifically identified in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda, who discovered that glutamate was responsible for the flavour of a broth made from kombu seaweed, and called it “umami”, meaning “savouriness”.
Umami is an integral component of many ingredients of Asian cuisine, like the Chinese soy sauce, Thai fish sauce and belacan (shrimp paste) and the Japanese seaweeds like kombu and nori. Nori is used in making sushi, whereas kombu, along with flakes of dried bonito fish called katsuobushi (which looks like wood shavings), another umami ingredient, are used in making dashi, a simple and quick stock which forms the basis of many Japanese dishes including miso soup and ramen.
There is a lot of umami in the West as well, found in meat broths, tomatoes, parmesan cheese, and that polarizing tarry spread called Marmite by the Brits and Vegemite by the Aussies. It is a yeast extract packed with umami, usually eaten with toast. Umami is also an important component of red meat and provides the “meatiness” to a steak or a stew like a beouf bourgignon.
There is one umami ingredient that has received a lot of disrepute over the past few decades. MSG or monosodium glutamate, also known as ajinomoto, consists of tiny, elongated crystals packed with umami (it is after all, a glutamate salt). It is a perfectly safe ingredient, but has wrongfully been tagged as the culprit in the very insensitively named “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”, referring to episodes of headache and flushing experienced by some people after eating at Chinese restaurants. It was all the rage in the 1970s, but the myth has been now debunked by a lot of experts who claim that the entire fiasco is linked to racism. So, go ahead and add some ajinomoto to your next batch of chowmein or kung pao chicken. It’s absolutely fine.
Well, that’s the five tastes sorted. Next time, we’ll stray out of the confines of the mouth, adding smell into the mix.