Aroma Therapy

Food and the Senses (Part 3)

So far in our FATS series, we have examined the five basic tastes. But when you taste any food, say a slice of cheese or a piece of dark chocolate, it is not just the taste buds in your mouth that give you the full experience. In fact, taste buds can only distinguish between the five basic tastes and nothing more. What is it then, that distinguishes lime juice from balsamic vinegar, orange blossom honey from maple syrup, a cup of cappuccino from a mug of hot chocolate, or these two drinks, one made with apple juice and the other with orange juice?

Apples and oranges? Not quite.

Let’s try an experiment to figure it out. Take a glass of orange juice and another of lemonade. Now pinch your nose, close your eyes, pick up a glass at random with your other hand, take a sip and try to identify the drink. If you’re not cheating, all you’ll taste is sweetness with some tang from the fruit, and maybe the slightest touch of bitterness. But that’s it. You will by no means be able to identify the drink. Now take a second sip and then let go of your nose. All of a sudden, as if by magic, you are hit with a waft of “flavour” and it becomes instantly clear if it is orange or lemon.

So how does flavour come about? When you taste a particular food, part of it dissolves in the saliva to be picked up by taste buds and categorized into one or more of the five tastes (gustation), and that’s where the tongue’s job ends. The rest of the work is done by the nose. Volatile aromatic compounds can reach the nose directly from the outside (orthonasal olfaction), while those already inside the mouth waft to the back, move up to the nasopharynx (the part of the throat lying just behind the nasal cavities) and into the nose, via a backdoor entry (retronasal olfaction). Either way, these molecules stimulate our sense of smell, which when combined with the sense of taste, gives us the complete flavour of whatever it is that we are eating.

Routes of gustation and olfaction

So, it sum it up: Flavour = Taste + Smell. The nose, therefore, plays a huge role in our appreciation of food. It also explains why food “tastes” so bland when we have our nose blocked thanks to a really bad cold. Taste is like the 8-crayon box (five, to be accurate) while aroma is like the much-coveted box of 64 (thousands, to be accurate), imparting foods of basically the same taste with unbelievable nuances of incredible variety.

Flavour chemistry is a complicated yet fascinating area which deals with the pairing of foods based on the flavour molecules they contain. Coffee and chocolate go so well together because they share a lot of flavour compounds like aldehydes and ketones. Using a technique called gas chromatography mass spectrometry, it is possible to isolate every single flavour molecule in a particular food. This has opened up new avenues of weird flavour combinations like white chocolate and caviar. Niki Segnit’s “The Flavour Thesaurus” is a great book which eloquently explains the basis of a lot of flavour pairings, both classic and quirky.

The Flavour Wheel from Niki Segnit’s “The Flavour Thesaurus”

Flavour combinations primarily work on two principles: likeness and contrast. Foods sharing flavour molecules tend to pair well together, as we’ve seen with chocolate and coffee. Members of the same botanical family tend to share flavour molecules, which explains why tomatoes, bell peppers and eggplants pair well together, think ratatouille or caponata. Another very important criterion is contrast, in which two different foods are paired, each mellowing out the effects of the other to create a harmonious balance. A good example for this is strawberries and cream, where the tart freshness of the strawberries is balanced out by the sweetness and fattiness of the whipped cream.

To understand how the right flavour pairings can create stunning masterpieces, let us examine this unique pizza made by my friend Apar Chatterjee, sous chef at Ottimo, the Italian restaurant of ITC Kohenur, Hyderabad. The base of this pizza swaps the classic tomato sauce for a fig jam. It is then topped with chunks of confit duck meat, which is a fancy term for duck cooked in duck fat. The pizza is baked and finished with fresh arugula (also called rocket) leaves and a generous drizzle of good quality balsamic vinegar.

Pizza with confit duck, fig jam, arugula and balsamic

The toppings are few, but each one plays a crucial part. The fig is sweet, the duck is salty with a hit of umami, the arugula is bitter and the balsamic, sour. So we’ve got all five tastes in perfect harmony with each other. But there’s more. The jam is rich, sumptuous and just slightly nutty, the duck is meaty and charred at the edges, the arugula is fresh with a herbaceous note, and the complex sweet and sour flavour of the balsamic pairs brilliantly well with all of the three. It is a great example of how a judicious choice of ingredients which go well together can create a delicious dish.

Well, that’s the tastes and smells sorted. Next time, in Part 4, we will focus on sight.

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