a taste of mummy

When I was six years old, I asked my school teacher how many tastes there are. She nodded sagaciously, then said with great conviction and believability, "there are four: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter."

But I just couldn't make any sense of this proposition. How could four tastes equal all the hundreds of complex tastes I was familiar with? For example, chocolate and honey are both sweet tastes. So how come they don't taste the same? She replied to the effect that what we refer to as "taste" is really a combination of the four tastes and smell from which we get the many and varied experiences we call "taste". Huh?

The next step on this tasty, smelly voyage was my discovery that it is believed there actually there are five tastes, not four. The fifth taste, "umami", was discovered in 1908 ("named" would be more accurate than "discovered"). It's not easy to define umami; it's vaguely (at least in my mind) associated with "savouriness". But the journey doesn't end here.

For any item of food or drink, the final experience in the mind of the eater or drinker is determined by:

  • the five tastes: sweet, salt, sour, bitter and umami
  • olfactory aspects, ie the smell/odour of the food or drink
  • texture, ie crunchy, smooth, soggy, hard, soft, soft center within a hard and crunchy core, etc
  • temperature (eg English people love drinking warm beer; everyone else prefers cold), and
  • visual aspects, ie shape, size, color and composition/structure (eg food prepared, presented and served to colour-coordinate with dining room place settings).
So what we simplistically refer to as "taste" is actually the complex combination of five factors, including taste itself. Furthermore, each person creates zir own taste experiences via a mechanism that psychologists refer to as the "binding" process whereby multiple streams of sensory data are bound together to form the unity of conscious perception comprising the self.

All of which only serves to highlight one of the themes I'm always banging on about: the untrustworthiness of language, that it conceals and confuses more than it reveals.


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Anonymous said...

We usually depend on mental maps supplied by our culture for many things, except where we decided (or are force) to strike out on our own. A good example is our idea of a foreign culture before and after looking into it - preferrably visiting. Talk to an outstanding person on a matter outside his field (which you have an interest in) and see how conventional and even parochial his ideas are.

The current Western idea of 4 basic tastes - expanded to 5 after contact with Japan - falls into this category. Other cultures mention at least
(a) astringent, e.g. tea, tannin.
(b) pungent, e.g. chilli.
(c) neutral or bland. The same quantity of suger gives a sweeter cup of tea with less water.
(d) fats. The body (blood) reacts specifically to this on the tongue, even though it is often bland on its own.

I don't know how basic (atomic) these tases are - whether anyone has actually tried to create every known taste by combining them.

Counterfeiters of wine have proven that most of wine appreciation is hot air.

I am grateful that tastes have not become a matter of religious belief - yet.

- mgeorge

masterymistery said...

mg, thanks for your detailed and informative comment.

It's almost embarrassing: your comment should be the post, and the post should be the comment!

Your comment opens up a number of avenues for further discussion, especially in terms of the relationships and dependencies between culture on the one hand and behaviour on the other.

Also, the issue of sub-cultures, sub-sub-cultures... etc etc down to the level of the culture of the individual. And issues arising from cultures nesting within cultures, and the degree of and factors affecting the alignment of nested cultures to each other.

Also, the issue of the emotions that music evokes --- the extent to which that is culturally driven, ie in Western culture/musical tradition, music in a minor key evokes the emotion of sadness.

The question is whether that specific connection --- between minor key and sadness --- exists and works the same irrespective of the culture of the person hearing the music.

Lots of work ahead!


Faycin A Croud said...

We did an experiment in my sophomore year in high school where we all took a taste of this substance, which turned out to be some sort of enzyme. Those who could taste it would like or dislike the tastes of certain foods. I don't remember what it was, but it must have been the anti-liver enzyme, because I strongly loathe the taste of liver above all things.
The word verification is "penutses."

masterymistery said...

Hi Faycin, I agree the liver aspects are pretty loathsome. But how about tripe? Or brains? Or steak and kidney pie? Eggs?

Anonymous said...

What about that vile taste i get when experiencing an unpleasant moment/feeling...

i have been told that when i hear something i don't like i look like i ate some sh1t???what one of those four am i tasting///

or when my girlfriend says....'i am burping like a monster???..WTF

would like to read your ideas.


masterymistery said...

Hi DSK, sorry for delay getting your comment posted.

kinesthesia, my friend, kinesthesis

Thanks for stopping by.