One of the reasons I enjoy writing books is that with each one I discover new facts, research and ideas. My latest book “Bitter” opened my eyes to the complexity of taste.
It began when my friends in the food world sent me suggestions as to what to include in my book. Coffee, chicories and beer were already on my list. But sorrel and rhubarb — weren’t they sour? Why did these food experts taste them differently than I?
We all think of basic tastes, such as bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and savory (also called umami). I knew fat belonged on that list and it has recently been added. But did you ever wonder why there were only six basic tastes? Surely taste is much more nuanced than that.
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By Jennifer McLagan
In the ancient world, scholars believed there were up to eight tastes and, by the 18th century, 11 basic tastes were proposed. So exactly how do we determine taste? Like most people, I thought the information from our taste buds on our tongue combined with our sense of smell to make a flavor. We’ve all experienced the lack of flavor in our food when we have a head cold. We do taste this way, but it is only part of the story.
Taste buds are not confined to our tongues. They are located all through our body, in our throat — down a shot of extra virgin olive oil and you’ll find those, in our lungs, stomach, intestines and, for some of us, in our testicles. So taste is not simply reliant on our tongue and nose; all our senses play a role.
Consider touch. Our fingers, lips, teeth, mouth; they all connect to the brain via the trigeminal nerve. It is responsible for the ice cream headache. Called the somatosensory system, these sensors help us taste by detecting temperature, texture, fattiness, pungency and tannins. The brain uses this information to create flavor. Interestingly many chefs have above average trigeminal nerve responses.
What we hear also affects how we taste. While extraneous sound distracts us and reduces the taste of our food, the noise inside our head increases it and the pleasure of eating. Crunchy, crisp foods are appealing because of the noise they make. Would you like a potato chip if it didn’t make a crunching sound? When we eat and drink, the tone of the background music and the instrument playing it can distort our sense of taste. A Campari and soda drunk while a brass band plays low-pitched music will be more bitter than if consumed while bright, high-pitched piece of music is played on a piano.
The most surprising fact I uncovered was the power of sight. It is often said we eat with our eyes, but I’d never comprehended the dominant role sight plays in what we taste. It is so forceful that it can distort and even override the information we receive from our other senses. As more than half of our brain is devoted to processing visual information, it must take shortcuts to handle all this data quickly.
With food our brain uses color to create flavor expectations, and the color of a food can confuse us and mask its real taste. British chef Heston Blumenthal’s two-toned orange and beetroot jelly demonstrates this power of color to determine taste. Not until diners close their eyes do they realize that the orange jelly they are eating is made with orange beets and the dark red jelly is flavored with blood oranges. Eating with our eyes takes on a whole new meaning when we realize we cannot trust them.
Along with the sensory clues our brain employs to generate flavor, a number of other things influence its decisions. Our genes make some of us more sensitive to certain tastes. What our mother ate when she was pregnant shapes our likes and dislikes, our upbringing and our peers decide what we eat and don’t eat. Anything we have heard, or read about the food will prejudice us too. Even the shape of our plate, what it’s made from, and the cutlery we use — all subtly affect how we taste. We all have the same anatomy yet every time we eat, numerous forces come into play, placing each of us in our own individual taste world.
Taste, I discovered is not simply our tongue and sense of smell. Flavor is produced by our brain, which is swayed by a myriad of cultural, environmental, experiential and genetic factors that can be as important as our senses in discerning flavor. Many of them we are barely aware of and are only beginning to understand and study. Next time you eat, pay close attention and think very carefully about what is influencing the flavor of the food on your plate.
Radicchio and Pumpkin Risotto
Prep time: 10 minute
Cooking time: 35 minutes
Yield: 2 servings
2 1⁄2 cups (625 milliliters) of chicken stock, preferably homemade
¼ cup (2 ounces) (60 grams) unsalted butter
1 shallot, finely chopped
6 ounces (170 grams) pumpkin, cut into 1⁄2-inch (1 centimeter) dice, about 1¼ cups
5 1/4 ounces (150 grams) radicchio leaves, rinsed and trimmed
1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) (100 grams) risotto rice (Vialone nano, Arborio, or Carnaroli)
2 tablespoons white wine or dry vermouth
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Pour the stock into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat so the stock barely simmers.
2. In another saucepan, melt half the butter over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook until translucent. Add the diced pumpkin and stir to coat the pieces with the butter. Season with salt, and cook until the pumpkin starts to soften slightly at the edges, about 5 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, cut the radicchio leaves in half lengthwise, then crosswise into ¼-inch (6-mm) strips. You should have about 4 cups.
4. Add the rice to the pan, stirring to warm the grains and coat them in butter. Stir in the radicchio and continue stirring until it wilts and changes color. Pour in the wine and cook, stirring until it evaporates; season with black pepper. Now add a ladleful of hot stock and keep stirring the simmering rice constantly until the liquid is almost completely absorbed. Continue adding the stock, one ladleful at a time, when the previous liquid is almost completely absorbed.
5. After 20 to 25 minutes, the pumpkin should be cooked and the rice should be creamy and cooked but still slightly al dente. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let sit for 2 minutes. Check the seasoning, stir in the remaining half of the butter, and serve in warm bowls. Grate Parmesan over the top.
I love the winey hue that radicchio gives the rice in this dish, and the way its bitterness balances the pumpkin’s sweetness. Now I know that using the word pumpkin reveals my birthplace, but I just can’t get my head around “squash.” However, so I don’t confuse you, use a firm, dry pumpkin (or squash) such as Hubbard or kabocha, which has a mild chestnut flavor.
I prefer to make risotto in small batches. This will stretch to serve four as a starter, depending on the rest of your meal; you can also double the recipe. Do use homemade stock, as it will make all the difference to the final result. You could also use a well-flavored vegetable stock to make this dish vegetarian. You’ll probably only need 2 cups (500 ml) of
the stock, but it will depend on your rice, so it is better to have a little extra just in case.
Rony’s Brussels Sprouts and Chickpeas
Prep time: 1 hour advance prep (unless using canned chickpeas, then 10 minutes)
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
1 cup (6 1/4 ounces) (180 g) dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in water to cover
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1 shallot, finely chopped
3/4 cup (175 milliliters) chicken stock, preferably homemade
17 1/2 ounces (500 grams) Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
2 tablespoons dry sherry
1. Drain the chickpeas and place in a saucepan. Cover them with cold water by 2 inches (5 cm) and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer until cooked. This can take from 30 minutes to over an hour depending on the age of the peas, so you need to keep an eye on them. Check them at 30 minutes. When they are cooked, remove from the heat, uncover, stir in 1 teaspoon of salt, and leave to cool for 30 minutes. Drain the cooked peas and spread them out on a baking sheet lined with a towel to dry.
2. Pour 2 tablespoons of the olive oil into a large heavy frying pan with a lid, and place over medium heat. When hot, add the shallot and cook until soft. Add the chickpeas, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until lightly browned. Add ¼ cup (60 milliliters) of the chicken stock and bring to a boil, stirring to deglaze the pan by scraping up any browned bits from the bottom. Tip the contents of the pan into a bowl.
3. Wipe out the pan and then add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Place over high heat, and when hot add the brussels sprouts. Try and get as many of the sprouts cut side down as you can; this will depend on the size of your pan. Cook the sprouts until dark brown on one side, then add the remaining chicken stock, season with salt and pepper, lower the heat, cover, and cook until the brussels sprouts are tender but still crisp.
4. Add the chickpeas, shallots, and any liquid and cook until warmed through. Check the seasoning and pour in the sherry. Serve hot or at room temperature.
My friend Rony loves food and is a good cook. When I visited him in New York he made brussels sprouts for dinner. It was before my conversion and I was not that keen to try them, but being well brought up I did. They were delicious. Caramelizing the sprouts in the oil eases their bitterness, as does the addition of the starchy chickpeas. There are two keys to this recipe: Cook your own chickpeas — they are superior to the canned ones — and cook the brussels sprouts in a very hot pan — as Rony said, “They should dance around in the pan.”
Main photo: In this risotto, the radicchio’s bitterness balances the sweetness of the pumpkin (or squash if you’re not from Australia). Credit: Aya Brackett