Taste on the brain
What is taste actually? Where is it? And can we
really talk about a good taste versus a bad taste? Per Mandrup is the director at Smagens Univers (Taste’s Universe) and an Approved Judge on the World Chef Organisation Culinary Competition Committee. And he has tasted most things. Read here, as he tries to put taste into words.
WE TALK ABOUT TASTE
Taste in food and especially in a gastronomic understanding. “Taste is many things. The general understanding is that it is something that you put into your mouth and then it tastes good or not as good – like two polar opposites,” he explains and continues: “Basically all taste starts with the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami taste, which has been added as a new flavour. The next possible addition can be fat, as it also helps to nuance the picture of taste,” explains Per Mandrup.
“But when we in the gastronomic world talk about taste, it’s much more than that. It’s the whole of the sensory sphere where you experience taste. We gastronomes are trying to push taste by, among other things, working with molecular gastronomy, where we’re trying to form some other pictures of taste. For example, we make peas through microbiology, so they taste like fir or strawberries in an attempt to surprise. We are also working with neurogastronomy that deals with the subconscious. If you’re served a very red dessert, you will find that it’s very sweet,” says Per Mandrup and explains that red equals sweet, and therefore, the colour red is used to tone down the amount of sugar, thereby tricking the brain.
“We can taste the five basic tastes by using our taste buds that sit on our tongue. A great deal of taste also sits in your memory. And a lot is found in smell. The aromatic nuances of taste are in your smell memory,” he says, and explains how our taste references draw on the memories we have with food: “We all have a memory record of what we’ve experienced in terms of taste,” he says. Such as the taste of Christmas, the smell of Grandma’s kitchen, or tomato soup which made us sick. Taste sensations that are stored as good or bad experiences, and remind us the next time we smell a roast in the oven or are served tomato soup.
According to Per Mandrup, the senses of smell and taste work in an interaction, which means that we can taste what we put in our mouth. Taste aromas from the oral cavity go along an inner channel to the brain, where the smell centre is - close to the reptilian brain. The reptilian brain is the primitive part of the brain that fundamentally protects our survival. This is where, according to Per Mandrup, we store smell and taste experiences. In terms of evolution, our senses have evolved as part of survival. And in this respect, taste and smell are important senses that steer us to the food that gives us the ability to survive and also what not to put in our mouth.
THE PERSONAL TASTE
“Our taste prints are as unique as our fingerprints,” says Per Mandrup. In addition to what each person has in the way of taste references, he describes that what we each associate with a good and bad taste, what we like and do not like, is subjective.
But what determines whether we like or dislike a certain food? When we talk about taste, it is often about what we can see, smell and taste. We create expectations for food and whether they are met is determined by the freshness of the ingredients and the preparation. In jargon, this assessment is also called mouthfeel. Based on this we determine whether food tastes good or bad.
Nonetheless, we can talk about what generally defines a good taste:
“When there is harmony, when it just plays and the dish has it all ... sour, sweet and so on. It’s soft and it’s crisp in the right places. Many people will experience that as a good taste,” says Per Mandrup.
WHAT TASTE BAGGAGE IS FULL OF
“Taste is also the result of where you come from and what you have in your taste baggage,” says Per Mandrup. “We can only taste as well as we have been brought up to. The less we have tasted, then the narrower our taste directory is,” he explains, adding that even in the small country of Denmark there are differences on which taste we prefer depending on which region we come from. In large towns and cities, there is more willingness towards new tastes, while traditional cooking is preferred out in the country. When Per Mandrup travels around the world as a taster, he encounters food cultures that are far from the Nordic kitchen. Last year he visited Mexico where children eat insects as a snack. The gastronomic kitchen in Denmark is trying to integrate this exotic food culture:
“Right now mealworms, grasshoppers, bee larvae and cockroaches are pouring in. We should eat them dead, alive and dried. But it’s difficult for us, in our culture, to get used to the idea of eating insects,” he says, and explains how the Danes’ mindset is a barrier that must be worked on.
WORDS ARE POOR
Even though Per Mandrup has many words with a clear passion as the source, he still lacks many more when he must describe taste: “We can’t articulate taste. It’s a problem. There is no language to talk about taste. A taste language. If, for example, we bought ten different varieties of carrots at the supermarket, we would have no way to describe and differentiate how they taste, apart from this sort here tastes great,” he says, referring to how we use adjectives and similar words, indiscriminately, to explain how food tastes. Because other options do not exist. And so not another word about taste.
ACRID AND SPICY FOOD IS NOT A TASTE.
Acrid and spicy food triggers a pain reaction. Pain nerves are activated when we eat that kind of food. Receptors on the tongue and in the throat transmit signals and spicy and acrid are registered in the brain as pain.
MEN AND WOMEN ARE DIFFERENT TASTERS.
The ability to taste can be measured and significantly more women than men are so called
supertasters. Their taste buds are more sensitive. It requires a large taste memory to be able to use your supertaster abilities.
Source: Per Mandrup
Published by HOUNÖ
Text: Journalist Lousin Hartmann
Photography: Rasmus Bluhme, Moment Studio and Signe Birck
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