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What is Flavor? A Party in the Mouth

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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.

Fletcher was classically taught French cuisine at the Shatec Institutes in Singapore. Being of Portuguese, English, and Asian descent, she infuses her cuisine with these marvelously distinctive flavors. Her cookbook, Quickies: Morning, Noon, and Night is a treasure trove of incredibly inspired dishes, all told in a fun, humorous, conversational style with enough charisma to disarm even the grumpiest person. Based in Singapore, what Anthony Bourdain calls one of the best places to eat on earth, she runs the blog Quickies on the Dinner Table where she consistently posts original recipes.

I would submit into evidence her entire cookbook if I were trying to prove a case for flavor profiles in court. Nevertheless, I will recap three courses that highlight great skill and knowledge of combining ingredients. Savory Breakfast Quick Bread is definitely something you want to wake up to. Loaded with bold flavors like Gouda cheese, onion, black olive, green olive, red bell pepper, and tuna, it is guaranteed to springboard you out of bed. She reaches into her Portuguese background to produce Caldo Verde, a green soup packed with flavor and differing textures. Here spicy garlic sausage and chili flakes supply the heat, while sweet onion, white vermouth, and a pinch of sugar provide a sweet kiss for balance. Yukon Gold potatoes, my absolute favorite by the way, give the soup body. Lastly, Beef, Ginseng, and Wolfberry Tea is a work of pure genius. This “tea” is made with lean beef, red apple, and wolfberries. Blanched fine noodles and a drizzle of sesame oil finish the dish. However, the star of the show is the ginseng. Ginseng has numerous medicinal benefits but you would be pleasantly surprised at how good it tastes.

Master cooks like Denise Fletcher understand that the most important flavors of a given preparation are those of the main component. Grilled beef tenderloin should taste of beef. Conversely, plain, bland foods should be made interesting by combining well thought out ingredients. The next time you have a party in your mouth, make sure you thank the “scientist” that made it happen.

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  • Cristy

    This is a very interesting article,totally agree on we eat with eye and sense of smell,my grand mom used to tell me that if you want to hold a man closer to you cook the foods that smell good and decorate the dish and use nice and posh dishes to serve.
    It made so much sense to me after reading this article.

  • Cristy…Thank you for commenting. Glad you liked the article. Without a doubt, we eat with ours eyes first. But, flavor will hold the memory. I think the most disappointing thing is a beautifully presented dish that tastes like crap. Cheers!

  • Lisa Paul

    I found this article very inspiring. Presentation and colour is very important when it comes to food, if it looked like gruel then we wouldn’t touch or taste it would we? I recently moved to Spain and i am enjoying the different spices used in dishes here. Thanks for such a great article.

  • Flavor is essential, but it also has to pass the smell test. I think that is why some people can’t seem to stomach fish because it smells fishy. My personal peeve is chitterlings. Nope, can’t go there and it’s mostly because of the smell.

  • Lisa Paul…You are so fortunate to live in Spain. What a vibrant place to eat at the moment. Such amazing creativity and exploration of food. Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

  • Joanne Huspek…You are absolutely right. I made quick mention in the beginning about smell being the main determining factor. It might be the next article. Cheers!

  • We have a local restaurant called Umami. I haven’t quite figured out what the term really means, but I do know their dishes are excellent and I find myself craving them! If you do a future article on smell, read the New Yorker’s piece on The Tastemakers


  • John Wilson

    Smell first?

    An excellent cook in Saumur, France commented to us “it does not smell like a flower” when serving Tripoux. Perhaps for the benfit of the guests who were not from Scotland.

  • John…Ultimately it is such a personal reaction, some people react to smell, others to presentation. I agree I have had meals that didn’t really pass the sniff test, but had a great flavor profile. Thank you for commenting.

  • Alexandra…I concur no matter how beautifully presented a dish is if it tastes bad. Forget it. Thank you for the kind words.