To understand how to create well-balanced, flavourful food, a little knowledge about how taste works is necessary. Broadly speaking, there are five different taste sensations, which are categorised as bitter, salty, sour, sweet and umami, although there are also some other, less common flavours, including astringent, spicy, and possibly also fat.
Humans and many other animals evolved the sense of taste in order to gain immediate information about the things we eat, with certain tastes becoming associated with things that were good to eat, while others warned of things that were potentially harmful. We detect flavour via taste receptors located within the taste buds that line the tongue. Each receptor contains a microscopic pore that lets in molecules of food as we eat it. These molecules then bind to structures within the receptor, which send messages to the brain containing taste information.
Of all the flavours, our taste buds are most sensitive to bitterness, with most people able to detect bitter flavours even in very small quantities. This is because many toxic substances have a bitter flavour, and humans have evolved to react quickly when it is detected. This doesn’t mean that all bitter foods are toxic, however. Some bitter tasting substances are actually beneficial, including the antioxidants found in kale, chocolate and coffee. Bitter flavours can also add interest and depth of flavour to food, and are often used to balance out excessive sweetness or cut through rich flavours.
Salt is one of the most important ingredients in cooking. A little goes a long way, and it can be used to bring out the flavours of both savoury and sweet dishes. A little salt is good for you, but too much can cause health problems, including high blood pressure. Likewise, our taste buds are programmed so that a little salt tastes good, but too much is unpleasant. Unfortunately, many people’s taste buds have adapted to the typical high-salt western diet, making them less reliable at detecting too much salt. The good news is that if you cut down on your salt intake, your taste buds will eventually readapt to be satisfied with less.
Sourness indicates that a food is acidic, and can be found in citrus fruit, as well as fermented foods such as vinegars, yoghurt and sauerkraut. While it may be a little intense by itself, sourness can be used to brighten otherwise dull dishes, and also to cut through rich flavours. Sour foods like lemon juice and vinegar are often included in dressings for this reason. If you find that your dish is too sour, you can balance the acidity using sweet, bitter or salty.
Sweetness is the most uncomplicatedly pleasant of all tastes. It indicates the presence of sugar, one of the body’s major sources of fuel, and because our sense of taste evolved before we had the technology to produce a ready supply of high sugar foods, our taste buds crave more of it than is actually healthy. In terms of balancing flavours, a little sweetness can be used to round out savoury or salty flavours, adding depth of flavour without making the entire dish taste sweet.
Umami is often referred to as the fifth flavour, because it was the most recent to be classified. Identified by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908, but not generally accepted in the west until 1985, it is usually described as savoury or meaty. The flavour comes from amino acids, the essential building blocks for complex proteins, which are released by cooking, curing or ageing. It was first used by Ikeda to describe dashi broth, but can also be applied to seared and cured meats, aged cheeses, green tea, soy sauce and cooked tomatoes or mushrooms. Umami flavours are enhanced by the addition of salt.
There are also some other taste sensations that are not always included with the main five, but deserve an honourable mention.
Astringent: astringency detects the presence of tannins in food. It can be described as a dry, rough, harsh or tart flavour. Astringent foods include tea, unripe fruit, nutmeg, rosemary, green apples, spinach and lentils.
Pungent: pungency, or spiciness, is best described as a dry heat, and can be found in chilli powder, all hot peppers, ginger, peppermint, cayenne, horseradish, onion and garlic.
Fat: it is clear that humans, and many other animals, crave food that is high in fat, and recent research suggests that taste receptors can actually detect fatty acids, which would make fat a flavour as well as a pleasant creamy texture.
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