The Science and Sensuality of Taste
Image: Marvin Harvey/ Corbis
distinctly remember the day, more than six decades ago, when I lost ‘taste’. A child of six, I was combating a bad cold and suddenly found that all food, even my favourites, had turned insipid. Father, a physician, patiently explained how we taste as much with our nose as with our tongue.
“There are about 100,000 taste buds, specialised cells, covering the tip, the top of the tongue as well as its sides,” he said. I am not quite sure he used terms like ‘mechanoreceptors’ or ‘chemesthesis’ and ‘nasal epithelial membrane’, but the connection between a blocked nose and loss of taste was made indelibly.
Mother chipped in with a bit of homegrown wisdom. Nature, she said, has endowed animals with the capacity to taste to aid their survival. What tastes bitter is usually poisonous and better avoided. Sour fruits are unripe and can, at the least, give us a stomach ache. Sweet stuff is normally nourishing.
Notwithstanding scientific journals and popular science bestsellers, the breakdown of the sense of taste remains an intriguing subject. It doesn’t help greatly to learn that the sensation of basic tastes like sweet and bitter depends on the efficiency of ‘G-protein coupled receptors’ or that temperature variations triggered by menthol register on ‘thermoreceptors’. Or, even, that research lab mice have provided valuable clues to the ‘fatty’ taste receptor.
Far more to the point is an understanding of how other senses contribute to taste. Sound may not be as crucial as smell but it plays a complementary, frequently underestimated role. The legendary Dr Pavlov trained his dog so well that the pooch began salivating when the dinner bell rang. Human beings, more evolved creatures, respond similarly. The crackling of spices in oil, the hiss of butter on a hot cast iron sizzler plate, the snap-crackle-pop of cornflakes kissed by cold milk all add something intangible but immensely satisfying to the eating experience.
More pivotal than sound, though, is appearance. Can any diner, unless starved, eat anything that looks, say, colourless and gooey? We eat with our eyes, a truism that has chefs working overtime to produce pretty plates. Indian thalis, served with numerous bowls containing different colours and textures, too, prioritise the visual senses. Touch, in the Indian way, allows yet another level of ‘tasting’ before the oral play begins: As your fingers touch a kebab, the way it crumbles foretells whether it will melt in the mouth. A puddle of ice-cream or a melting kulfi can put off almost everyone.
But there is more to taste than the physical dimension. Tasting, like sex and war, begins and ends in the mind. Some rate the journey over the destination and, while we won’t go that far, it is hard to deny that anticipation and expectation go a long way in creating an experience. Candlelight, soft music, silver service almost always improve the mood and enhance the taste of whatever is served—a tactic exploited by fine-dining restaurants across the world to survive despite ordinary fare.
All of us are born with the family taste DNA in our cells. For an American, no apple pie can taste as good as the one mamma made. All else pales in comparison to the home-cooked food we had in childhood and adolescence. Throughout our lives, this is what we will pine for in moments of stress and seek to include in intimate celebratory meals.
Within the vast culinary melting pot that is India, taste mediates our regional, religious and ethnic identities, shaped by a shared preference for a particular staple cereal (rice, wheat or maize), cooking medium (mustard, sesame, peanut or coconut oil) as well as choice of sweetening (sugar, jaggery) and souring agents (dried unripe mango or tamarind).
This is not to suggest that man must remain fettered by the accident of birth. As we grow up, we acquire new tastes: Some, we encounter while travelling, enticed by their sheer exoticity; others subdue us with a seductive power that can be explained only as a blend of greed and envy. We take to truffles, foul smelling cheeses, tannic wines for the same reasons we plunge into golf or adopt a personal guru. These are the traits or foibles of persons on the rise. ‘Refined’ taste (whatever the word may mean) is believed to open closed doors, break ice, accelerate success and announce arrival.