Taste: how our palate works
Why do some combinations of ingredients appeal and others not? Why can some excite the palate and others repulse? Why do the beverages we drink with our food have the ability of making a dish taste more delicious or more awful?
Sometimes it is hard to explain why you like to eat a dish or blend of ingredients and can’t stand others, but it is a fascinating subject and one that I have spent many years considering and sharing with my students at the New Zealand School of Food and Wine (NZSFW).
The serious aspect
There is a whole science behind how we taste that underpins the food service industry and what we buy in the supermarkets. Think of all those ready-made dips from pesto to hummus or wacky ice cream flavours—consumer focus groups evaluate and rate products to consider their appeal to future customers.
Scientists also differentiate between taste as chemical sensations from our taste buds and flavour which is a “fusion” of senses including, smell, tactile (chewiness in the mouth), heat or even pain from eating hot chillies.
We learn to respond to taste. Inmost cases we do not like food that is bitter — this is apparently a survival mechanism from our time as hunters and gatherers as bitter plants often contain poisons. Food that is too salty or acidic can also be unpalatable. Subconsciously, we are making decisions as to whether to swallow or whether to spit!
On average, people have around 10,000 tastebuds but some may only have 1000 while others may have 13,000 and are highly sensitive to what they eat. So the world of taste can look dramatically different, depending on your physiology.
However the influence of our taste buds does not explain everything as there remain important psychological influences that are less predictable but equally powerful. For instance, we often associate food with a happy memory— sitting on a beach or on holiday—so that too influences our mood and how we perceive taste and flavour.
The fun aspect
Putting aside the science, it is fascinating to learn more about your own preferences and why you like certain things and dislike others. It is also interesting to consider tastes or flavours that provoke behavioural responses, and this becomes a personal story of discovery.
For me, I find that if I eat something sweet for breakfast — jam, or sweet pastries, this just sets me up to want to eat more sweet food throughout the day. If I eat a poached egg followed by espresso coffee I often do not feel hungry until 3pm. Yes, there are nutritional aspects here, but for me, the coffee is bitter and also has a long savoury finish that I like. I do not want to alter the finish on my palate and so for me, espresso is a “full stop”.
What’s more, if someone offered me a freshly-baked lemon tart just after I had finished the coffee, I would decline even if the tart looked amazing. The reason is that I do not want to introduce a citrus, sweet, slightly acidic flavour to my mellow coffee palate… but this is me!
What about you?
Learn to identify the following tastes and rate the intensity for you on the palate.
It is also interesting to consider if you like this taste? I like to use the smiley emoticon to remind me that this taste makes me happy. By the way, there is no right or wrong answer. It is about YOU and your preferences.
The key is to learn to understand taste better and discover more about your palate and which combinations make you happy and which make you sad. Then the next step is to understand how the beverage you are drinking with your meal enhances or detracts from the meal.
Adding in the wine
It’s fun to look at taste and flavours in relation to pairing food and wine. At NZSFW, we take a menu of small dishes and taste them alongside a line-up of wines. Of course our goal is also to learn some more about different styles of wine but at the same time experiment and discover how the wine changes when tasted with a series of different foods.
The menu includes some fish, meat and sweet dishes and the chosen wine reflects a theme such as Wines from Italy (which are very fashionable at present and no one knows much about them) or aromatic wines to pair with Asian cuisines.
Our goal is help people learn more about their palate but at the same time learn something about wine and enjoy a tasting menu. So it is fun, educational, gastronomic and everybody goes away with more knowledge about which taste and flavour combinations make them happy?
Join us and learn more
Bite and Celia Hay are bringing to you a series of fascinating classes that will help uncover the mysteries of successful food and wine pairings. To secure your spot, click here.