Taste is communicated to the body through receptors found throughout the mouth, known as our taste buds. The majority of taste buds are located on the top part of the tongue, although some are on the roof of the mouth. Ever notice that when you have a stuffed nose you really cannot taste anything? This is because smell is the main determinant of a food item's flavor. The five tastes the body recognizes are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami.
Umami is an ancient concept, although the official term was recently coined. Umami is a flavor caused by the interaction of glutamates, an amino acid, and certain receptors on the tongue.
What does this mean for the cook? Everything! We make our reputations on taste. Human beings eat with their eyes first. Presenting food artistically affords the cook an opportunity to make a great first impression, all the while allowing for exploration of the creative side of the brain and honest expression of the self. However, presentation is there for only fifteen seconds. Ultimately, it is flavor that holds the memory.
When I conceptualize a dish I ask myself three pivotal questions. What do I want to see on the plate? What do I want to smell? What do I want to feel in the mouth? To be a proficient cook one must be a chemist. The combinations of ingredients that conspire to create unique flavor profiles are endless. The job of the cook is not unlike the job of a matchmaker: to find two or more divergent substances and get them together. There are no mistakes. Even the most disastrous, inedible experiments can become future great accomplishments if one is paying attention.
Can a cook get too exotic with flavor combinations? My brilliant wife, who incidentally is my personal taste tester, is usually quite open-minded. Yet, one day while I was in the kitchen lovingly creating a magnificently intricate dessert, using rose water and lavender, my wife casually slid by me and graced me with, “Are you making soap?” Her line was classic, the moment unforgettable.
Finding the correct balance of flavors is not an exact science but when done right it can resemble scientific aptitude. Luckily the world is teeming with fantastic “scientist” cooks. Denise Fletcher is one such supremely talented cook.