Ever wonder how top chefs can taste a dish and tell you exactly what’s in it? How sommeliers discern notes of raisin or oak in a glass of wine? Here’s a short guide on how to train your palate to recognize the subtle diversity in flavor.
To taste or not to taste, that is the question.
If you’re anything like me you want to be able to discern the subtle flavours of nutmeg in a cream sauce or thyme in a soup. You want to be able to taste a dish and know exactly what you’re eating. Was that parmesan added to those mashed potatoes? What type of chillies did the chef put in that Pad Ka Prow Moo (Spicy Thai Basil Pork)? Then I think, maybe I could try re-creating this at home… but, in order to get to that point, I’d need to born with an amazing palate right? This is something only top chefs can do, taste a dish, analyze its ingredients and reconstruct it, right? Turns out almost anyone (and there are some exceptions) can have a sensitive, discerning palate. The journey to a well-developed palate won’t be a quick one, but I promise it will be enjoyable.
Let’s start with a bit of taste biology.
You are born with around 10,000 taste buds. Each bud is composed of 50-150 taste receptor cells, which ultimately are responsible for sending those taste sensations to your brain for feedback. That’s a lot of taste potential ~ 1.5 million receptor cells. Another equally important biological factor to taste, is our sense of smell. Have you ever tried tasting your favourite foods when you’ve got a cold? They tend not to pack as much flavour as when your nose is perfectly clear. Your senses, all of them, play some role in how you experience taste. Sight, smell, texture, temperature, even the sound of food can tell you more about taste. That crunchy sound when you bite into a fry can actually have an effect on your taste experience. Apparently, the crunchier sounding the fry, the more enjoyable the fry.
So, when you’re tasting food, try thinking about all your senses and how they interact to define the experience.
It’s important to note that as we age, our taste buds degenerate which can lead to a stunted sense of taste. But time doesn’t necessarily need be our enemy, over time you can train your taste buds to decipher more effectively.
Train & Gain
The best sommeliers in the world didn’t have their first glass of wine at the age of 18 and say, “Hey, I sense a hint of oak, stone fruit & that earthy soil that grows grapes in cooler climates.” No, they tasted their first glass of wine, probably had no clue what type of fruit that wine embodied, then they tasted a different glass, then another, then another, then after what may be a thousand tastings of different wines, they felt confident enough to pinpoint where those wines were produced. Hopefully you get my point, which is, they practised. They invested time & effort to developing a more sensitive palate.
Try new foods. I know it’s easy to fall into a monotony of foods. You meal prepped on Sunday and now you’ll be having chicken & broccoli everyday for the next week. But, diversity in colour, texture, flavours, temperatures and smells will give your brain a little taste workout – allowing it to pinpoint those flavours easier the next time you experience them. And while you’re at it, actually think about what you’re tasting – stop watching TV or reading that book and pay attention to what’s in your mouth – put a word to it. Salty? Sour? Bitter? Sweet? Savoury? I like to think of this as yoga for your palate. In yoga we’re taught to focus our thoughts on the breath. Well, here I want you to focus on your taste, your smell, the texture of the food. What does it remind you of? What words describe it for you? Nama-taste.
Cleanse your palate. Between courses or dishes do one of the following: have a sip of tepid water, eat a soda cracker, eat bread, suck on a lemon or orange slice. The acidity of citrus and the texture of bread will help to remove & neutralize the flavours still hanging around on your taste buds.
Ixnay on the upidstay
Don’t smoke. Try your best not to drink heavily. Cut down on the salt. Cut down on the sugar. These things hinder our potential to decipher flavours. Sugar & salt use overstimulation to detract from our tasting abilities whereas smoking & drinking suppress our ability to send sensory messages to the taste centres in our brain.
I hope, in time & with practise, you’ll be able to catch that hint of fig or taste of smoked paprika in the main course that was just served. And then share with those you’re eating with exactly how you were able to and how they can too.
As to that original question…. to taste or not to taste?
Taste. The answer is to taste.
Bowen, R. “Physiology of Taste.” (Accessed 09/12/19) http://www.vivo.colostate.edu/hbooks/pathphys/digestion/pregastric/taste.html
Reuters. “Smoking, family alcohol history alter taste buds.” 10/24/07.
DiSylvester, Brianne. “To Cleanse or Not to Cleanse, Your Palate.” Organic Authority. (Accessed 09/12/19) http://www.organicauthority.com/foodie-buzz/how-to-cleanse-your-tastebuds.html
Perasso, Eva. “How to Train Your Palate.” 08/19/11.