A friend recently shared an article with me that lists 20 words from around the world that are not easily translatable into English words. This article touches on the ways that words inform thoughts and thoughts inform words; if your vocabulary doesn’t include a word with a specific meaning, it may be harder to pin down the exact nature of a feeling or to fully describe a certain stimuli.
Food critics and connoisseurs have special words in their vocabulary that they use to describe foods. Some are words that people use every day, but each has a very specific definition when used to express the nuances of flavor. Understanding these words may help you more fully experience the sensations food provides, translating to a more mindful way to eat.
Flavor: The distinctive quality of a food or drink as perceived with the combined senses of taste, smell, and other senses. In other words, it is the combination of sensations that creates our overall perception of a food. This list encompasses many (but definitely not all) of these components.
Taste: the sensations of what we detect when food, drink or other substances come in contact with our taste buds – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Some substances irritate other nerves in the mouth, which respond to sensations of pain, heat or cold, or sensations our brain interprets as pungent, hot, spicy, or piquant or something that is astringent, sharp, or dry. These sensations are not strictly tastes, as they are not detected by the taste buds, but they still contribute to overall flavor.
· Sweet: “For most people, sweetness is the most pleasurable and often sought-after taste, although, ironically, the fewer sweet-tasting foods we consume, the more enhanced our ability to recognize sweetness becomes. A food’s sweetness come from the naturally occurring sugars it contains (for example, sucrose and fructose) or sweeteners added to it. This sweetness can sometimes be enhanced by adding a small amount of a sour, bitter or salty taste. Adding too much sourness, bitterness or saltiness, however, will lessen our perception of the food’s sweetness.”1
· Sour: “An acidic, tart, possibly unpleasant flavor.”2 “Considered the opposite of sweet, a sour taste is found in acidic foods and, like sweetness, can vary greatly in intensity. Many foods with a dominant sour taste, such as red currants or sour cream, will also contain a secondary or slight sweetness. Often a sour taste can be improved by adding a little sweetness or negated by adding a large amount of a sweet ingredient.”1
· Salty: Other than saltwater foods, this taste mostly results from the addition of salt by the person preparing the food. “Salt helps finish a dish, heightening or enhancing its other flavors. Dishes that lack salt often taste flat. Like the taste of sweetness, the less salt consumed on a regular basis, the more saltiness we can detect in foods.”1 The less we use it, the less we need!
· Bitter: “A harsh, relatively disagreeable acrid flavor.”2 “Although the bitterness associated with tasting alkaloids [as opposed to acidic foods] and other organic substances may occasionally be appreciated, such as when tasting chocolate or coffee, a bitter-flavored ingredient unbalanced by something sour or salty is generally disliked and, as a survival mechanism, is believed to serve as a warning of inedibility or unhealthfulness.”1
· Umami: Stems from the Japanese word umai, meaning “delicious.” The richness or fullness of a dish; a savory characteristic to a food that it not sweet; the meaty taste of a dish. Examples of foods that are umami include cheese, meat and fish, rich stocks, mushrooms, tomatoes, wine, and aged or fermented foods such as soy sauce or kimchee. All of these foods are high in the naturally occurring amino acid glutamate or contain MSG (monosodium glutamate).
Aroma: “Odors that enter the nose or float up through the back of the mouth to activate smell receptors in the nose.”1 Note that the smell of food when it is in front of you is different from the smell of it when it is inside of your mouth. Both contribute to overall flavor.
Texture: The “feel of a food or beverage as it enters the mouth and is sensed on the palate; it can be smooth, grainy, creamy, flaky, dense, crumbly, brittle, hard, soft, firm, springy and so on.”2
Consistency: The thickness or thinness of the food. “A food’s consistency affects its flavor”1 in that thicker foods “take longer to reach peak intensity and will have a less intense flavor”1 than thinner foods, assuming equal amounts of taste and smell compounds. A good example of this is sweetened heavy cream – if one is whipped and the other is not whipped, “the whipped cream has more volume and therefore a milder flavor.”1
Mouthfeel: “The sensation, other than flavor, that a food or beverage has in the mouth; a function of the item’s body, texture, and, to a lesser extent, temperature.”2 Mouthfeel is a conglomeration of the feeling of food by the tongue, gums, teeth, and lips as you eat it. While it includes texture, it also notes a variety of other sensations in the mouth. I was considerably impressed with the Wikipedia article on mouthfeel – check it out here to see more of the components considered when evaluating mouthfeel. This is probably my personal favorite characteristic of food to ponder.
Color: A food’s color can greatly affect how the consumer perceives its flavor. When color matches a food’s expectations, the perception of taste and flavor intensity increases. For example, when oranges are colored artificially so they look more vibrantly orange, the oranges can actually be perceived to taste better or differently than an orange that truly tastes the same but is a less vibrant color. If the color of a food with uncertain identity causes a miscue, this can also adversely affect the consumer’s perception of the food’s flavor. For example, if you are given a piece of pie that looks gelatinous and green, you may assume it is a lime pie. However, if this pie is truly a lemon pie that has been colored, this can affect how you perceive the pie’s flavor due to cognitive expectations, possibly resulting in less enjoyment of the pie.1 A similar situation occurs with the appearance of food – cognitive expectations stemming from appearance can heighten or lessen the enjoyment of a food’s flavor.
Palate: The ability to recognize and appreciate distinct patterns of aroma, taste, and overall flavor.
Although age, health, and smoking call all affect a consumer’s perception of flavor, genes can also play a role. Some people, referred to as supertasters, may have more taste buds than average, possibly even twice as many as non-tasters or medium tasters.1
However, anyone can take the time to pay more attention to flavor. To better utilize your palate and become more mindful and articulate of a food’s characteristics, try paying attention to the food’s flavor profile – the “flavor of a food from the moment the consumer gets the first whiff of its aroma until he or she swallows that last morsel.”1 The most obvious of these could be the sharp, first flavors as well as the dominant, lingering flavors stemming from the 5 basic tastes.
As you begin to pay more attention to your perception of flavor, you will become a more mindful eater. Hopefully, this vocabulary will help you better decipher a broader range of flavor notes, better utilizing your full palate and increasing your overall appreciation of food.
For this entry, I referred most often to two texts – I highly recommend both of them to those who want to learn more about the topics of food and cuisine.
- 1. On Cooking: A Textbook of Culinary Fundamentals by Labensky and Hause (4th Edition), 2007.
- 2. Webster’s New World Dictionary of Culinary Arts by Labensky, Ingram, and Labensky (2nd Edition), 2001.