In this weeks’ Wine and Food segment, I would like to briefly touch on how we perceive flavors and why we like and dislike them before further diving into the beautiful world of wine and food pairings.
Fortunately, we come equipped with a very complex and sophisticated array of extraordinary sensory abilities. But, as you can imagine, we don’t fully understand or recognize them regularly. In particular, our senses of smell and taste, and how they impart an enormous role in defining our perception of flavors. Namely, with food and wine.
Here are some questions to get you thinking:
How would you describe a taste of strawberry?
How about your favorite glass of wine – red, white, sparkling or otherwise?
What about ramen noodles?
The reality is that we don’t usually put too much thought into the specific flavor profiles of food and wine in our daily lives beyond the basics of if something tastes good or bad. Wouldn’t it be nice to break out of the shell and explore further? I do believe so, and that is why I’m here trying to tap into our senses and explore the possibilities beyond the comfortable “good” and “bad.” For me, what has worked is always to ask myself: why?
Why does the combination of certain flavors taste so darn delicious?
Why does this seem bland?
Or why is it so overpowering?
What is perceived by the mouth: Do you know that all the delicious bites of food you’ve ever tasted are partially the result of five tastes coming together on your taste buds? Yup, according to science, our taste buds can perceive five tastes: Sweet, Salty, Sour, Bitter, and Umami.
Sweet – A spoon-full of sugar.
Salty – A pinch of salt.
Sour – A wedge of fresh lemon.
Bitter – A cup of freshly brewed coffee.
Umami – A teaspoon of soy sauce.
And that is not all, you guys. There’s also a mouthfeel!
In addition to the sense of taste, our mouths can incorporate senses of “touch,” “sight,” and “sound” (quite incredible, right?), which means that it can register way more. Think hot, cold = temperature; Crunchy, crispy = texture; Spicy, sharp = piquancy; Tannins in wine or strong tea = astringency (drying sensation often confused with bitterness). And that is just the mouth alone.
What is perceived by the Nose: The importance of smell to the flavor of food and wine is not to be understated. After all, it is thought to be the greatest sensory attributes we have, responsible for about 80 percent of flavor perceived. It can also be the most difficult attributes to describe (especially in wine) as it accounts for the overall perception of volatiles (both pleasant, such as “aroma,” and unpleasant).
The best way to put this to test is to remember a time when you had a stuffy nose and ate your warm, salty chicken noodle soup. Do you remember it tasting like much when your nose was out of commission?
Additionally, we have the emotional and mental attributes that influence our perception of flavor. Our sense of smell is explicitly tied to our memories of previous experiences, environments, and our recollection of food/wine that could interfere and potentially jade our optimism when enjoying those certain foods and wines alike. And it could work the other way around, brightening our experiences. Why else would we reminisce about that great dish grandma always made when we were kids? Not that Grandma wasn’t the best cook, but our memories of her dishes won’t let us openly enjoy that same dish when made by a new cook.
Annnd, I’ve got more qualities to share, such as Pungency and Chemesthesis (chemical sensibility) that are perceived by both the sense of smell and taste. Think of horseradish = Pungent, and some peppermint (false perception of cold) = Chemesthesis.
What is perceived by Sight and other influencers: The visual representation of both food and wine can influence a great deal of our perception of its flavor. We visually pinpoint faults and strengths, associate them with possible impacts on flavor. Think effervescent when it’s not supposed to be, cloudy when it’s supposed to be clear, lush in color when it assumed to be bright/deep, or that it lacks symmetry.
Next time you have a great meal, or any meal I ask you to try to ask yourself “why is it so great?” or, if applicable, “why is this so terrible?”