The FATS Journey (Part 1)

I started my blog in August, and the Food and the Senses series has been a dominant component so far. The roots of this series, however, goes back five years, to November of 2014.

The student community of Medical College Kolkata publishes an annual magazine called Rupantar. It features stories, personal anecdotes, beautiful poems and a few informative articles on relevant contemporary issues. I thought it would be a good platform to try out some writing. And of course, the topic had to be food.

Food and the Senses, published in the 2014 edition of Rupantar, was my first proper food article. Over the next five years my knowledge about the topic has increased quite a bit. Also, I used a lot of ……. back then. So, in 2019, when I was contemplating about starting a food blog, I decided that one of the first things I should do is take that one small article and expand it into a full-blown series.

As a bit of a Christmas treat, here is that old article from 2014. Think of it as an abridgement of the seven-part multisensory journey. A new year lies ahead, and there is still a lot more to write about. But before that, a trip down memory lane seems apt. So here it is: FATS 1.0

Food……is it just a necessity, something to fill our stomachs and give us energy to carry on with our lives, something like stopping at a petroleum pump to refuel our car before that long drive? Of course food is a necessity in life.  But is it just that? I don’t think so. Food is so much more than that. Good food not only fills our stomach, it makes us happy. It affects the soul just as much it does our corporeal being. Eating, in fact, is one of the very few activities of our everyday life that engages all five senses.

Let’s start with the obvious……taste. A quick recap of high school biology……our tongue is a sense organ containing numerous taste receptors called taste buds. They detect four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Food dissolves in saliva and stimulates these taste buds which send a signal to our brain. Every taste bud can pick up every taste, but some taste buds are sensitive to particular tastes (tip for sweet, back for bitter, etc).  With the science sorted out, let’s look at the tastes from another viewpoint.

Salt is that magic ingredient capable of enhancing the taste of a dish. It is used to preserve food as well. Well, you must have known all that already……what you might not have known is salt’s uncanny ability to make bitter food taste sweeter. Try this out…take a piece of dark chocolate like Bourneville and have a bite……you will get a bitter taste. Next, rinse your mouth and have another go at it, this time with a tiny pinch of salt. The chocolate, unbelievably, now tastes less bitter and a bit more sweet. This principle is used in many desserts involving chocolate where a pinch of salt enhances the sweetness of chocolate.

Sweet……well who doesn’t like sweets? Love of the sweet taste is almost a primal instinct, we hear of people with a “sweet tooth”, not sour tooth or salty tooth. It is certainly the most pleasant taste. Well then, what about sour and bitter?

Do you remember Centre Shock? That chewing gum filled with a super sour jelly which was claimed to be able to make your hair stand on end? How did that become popular? Well, sour is not as horrible a taste as you may think. Of course, too much of sour makes your mouth pucker, but acidity and sourness plays a very important role in food. Not only does it add some freshness to a rich curry or a creamy ice-cream, it makes us salivate, which is a desirable aspect when it comes to eating. As the saliva is the solvent for the food, it helps us perceive taste better. Thus, sour is literally “mouthwatering”.

Bitter is by far the least preferred taste……sort of like the anti-sweet, you might say. But then, why is bitter on the food map? Well, it plays a good role in balancing other tastes. An overly sweet dessert is well balance some bitter dark chocolate, a bit of bitter lime zest (rind) amps up a rich dish. In fact, bitterness is closely related with Bengali food culture, where it is customary to begin meal with something bitter like “Neem- begun” or “Shukto”.

Recently, a fifth taste has been identified. It has been called ‘umami’, and has been described as “meaty” or “savoury”. Tomatoes and parmesan cheese are rich in umami. But the umami rich foods mostly hail from oriental cuisine, like Chinese soya sauce, Thai fish sauce and Japanese seaweed or nori that is used in making sushi. A cheap condiment often used to boost umami flavours is MSG or Monosodium Glutamate or ‘ajinamoto’. It is commonly used in many roadside chowmein stalls here and there, but its use has declined due to health concerns.

So salty, sweet, sour, bitter, umami…… is that it? Well, no. There is another side to the story. Try this at home. Take a piece of orange and a cup of black coffee. Press your nostrils with your fingers and eat the orange. What do you taste? Sour, sweet, and maybe just the tiniest hint of bitter……that’s it. Now, release your nostrils while still chewing the orange……you are almost immediately get that typical orangey “taste” you were missing for so long; it “tastes” much better now. Rinse your mouth and try the same with the coffee. What seems to be a bitter, slightly sweet liquid will seem to metamorphose when the nostrils are released.

So……what is going on? Well, apart from stimulating the taste buds, food also stimulates our sense of smell. All foodstuff have a lot of volatile aroma molecules that reach your nose either from outside via nostrils or from inside your mouth via the nasopharynx. They stimulate our olfactory receptors and this sense of smell combined with the sense of taste from the tongue gives us a composite idea of flavor. So, flavor, the very essence of all good food, is a combination of taste and aroma. Our tongue and nose work together to create flavor. So, when we have a blocked nose, as in a cold, food seems a bit bland.

And from here starts the glorious realm of flavor combination. Good flavor combinations either have similar constituents, as in the deadly combo of bitter chocolate and bitter coffee, or must have complementary ingredients, like strawberries and cream, where the richness and sweetness of cream is balanced by the sourness and freshness of strawberries. Other more bizarre flavor combinations exist, like cauliflower and chocolate, but let’s stop at that.

There is another matter that needs to be dealt with at this point…….heat or pungency. Neither a taste nor a flavor, heat is produced by a chemical present in chillies called capsaicin, which stimulate taste buds causing stimulation of the limbic system. Chillies act on the pleasure and pain centres simultaneously, which might explain why most people are drawn to this ingredient.

So, that’s the taste and smell sorted. True, they are the most important senses in our eating experience, but the other senses can very well be engaged……

It was a long article, so I decided to split it in two. Tune in tomorrow for the second half of my Christmastime nostalgia.

The cover of Rupantar 2014

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