On taste

By Anita Roy

2 February 2017

An etymological and gustatory exploration.
Illustration: Paul Aitchison

Illustration: Paul Aitchison

(This is an essay from our April 2013 print quarterly ‘Farms, Feasts, Famines’. See more from the issue here.)

“Did you know,” I asked my ten-year-old son the other day, “that cats can’t taste sweetness?” Acquiring and sharing random bits of scientific trivia is one of the occupational hazards of working for a ‘general knowledge’ magazine. “Cats,” I went on, keen to display my newfound insights on the feline tongue, “have no sweet receptors”. This was met with a thoughtful silence, after which my son asked, “Then what do they taste if they eat a jalebi?” This excellent question quickly led to an existential discussion. If you can’t taste sweet, then sweetness simply does not exist, or does it? Do our senses act as translators, receiving information about the external world and putting it into a language that we can understand? Or is the external world created by the receptors we are equipped with? If it is the latter, what about all the tastes for which we don’t have the right taste buds?

Etymologically, the root of ‘taste’ goes back to the word tasten from Middle English, which means to examine by touch, to test or to sample. You can see or hear something from a distance, smell it when you are closer, and touch it with your skin. But in order to taste something, you have to bite it, lick it, chew it – basically invite it into your body. According to the author, naturalist and free-ranging polymath Diane Ackerman, taste is our most intimate sense.

The word taste not only refers to one of our five, or more, senses. To taste something is also to test it or to check it out, as ‘taster menus’ suggest. It also means preference. As a child, I had always assumed that the ‘add sugar to taste’ instructions on cereal packets meant that you had to add sugar if you wanted to taste the cereals at all, and not – as I now realise – add just enough to suit your personal preference. What is sweet for one is not necessarily sweet enough for another. ‘Chacun à son goût, to each his own taste,’ one might shrug, watching a visitor ladle three heaped teaspoons of sugar into his tea. Or if the situation demands something less laissez-faire and a bit more dismissive, one could say, ‘de gustibus non est disputandum, there’s no accounting for taste’.

In order to taste something, you have to bite it, lick it, chew it – basically invite it into your body

We eat things with gusto – which comes from its Latin root gustare, to taste – or spit them out if they taste disgusting. This was beautifully illustrated in the BBC series Tribe, in which an intrepid explorer named Bruce Parry travelled to the Amazon rainforest to live with the natives there. At one point, the hunting party came upon a fallen tree. Parry watched with horrified fascination as his guides gleefully tore off a piece of rotten bark, to reveal a writhing mass of fat, inch-long maggots. His friends, their eyes shining with delight at this unexpected feast, offered him a squirming morsel. To his credit, Parry bit into, chewed on and managed to swallow some of it, pantomiming approval for his eager hosts but gagging as he faced the camera. More interestingly, on their trek back, Parry decided to share with the tribesmen some of the trail-mix that he and the cameraman had brought along for the journey. One of them bit into a raisin, and the grimace of utter disgust on his face perfectly mirrored that of Parry’s own response to freshly plucked Amazonian tree maggot.

Tastes vary from person to person. I know many people who actually consider karela – bitter gourd – edible. But tastes are also culturally defined. The pungent blue-veined cheeses relished by the French and Italians are repulsive to the Indian palate, just as the English find the Tamil dishes that use a lot of chillies impossible to taste, beyond the incendiary burn. I remember my parents returning several pounds lighter from a trip to Japan, shaking their heads and wondering how anyone can survive, day after day, on sticky rice, seaweed and fish.

I am also reminded of the reaction of an English friend experiencing his first gol gappa. “That’s just, um,” he grimaced, probing with his tongue to extricate the inter-dental morsels of puri, “the most … excitingly … um … disgusting thing I’ve ever put in my mouth”. Coming from someone with his evangelically liberal erotic tastes, this was really saying something.

The Connoisseur

When we are ill or homesick, we crave comfort food – those dishes that recreate the textures and flavours of our childhood. For some Southasians, it might be khichdi, the soft, creamy mixture of daal and rice. For Anton Ego, the arrogant food critic in the Pixar animation film Ratatouille, it is the eponymous dish, which his loving peasant mother cooked for him when, as a little boy, he had scraped his knee after falling from a bicycle. For me, it is ‘spag bog’, the spaghetti bolognese that mom used to cook as a special treat for me and my brothers when we were kids.

Sadly, we don’t always fully taste what we eat. We munch down toast and grab a coffee but barely notice what’s passing our lips, just as long as we get fuel into our bodies. To counteract this modern malaise, some people are now opting for ‘mindful eating’ in an attempt to return some of the ras – juice – back to our increasingly frenetic, yet bland, modern existence.

My brother, a yoga teacher based in the UK, described in wistful detail his experience of attending a mindfulness workshop recently. Thankfully, the teacher had chosen raisins, not maggots, for the session. “It takes a long time,” he said, “about half an hour per raisin”. First, you just hold the raisin in your palm, breathing mindfully and contemplating its ‘raisinly’ qualities: the puckered skin, the size and shape, its brownish purple hue, and the withered remnant of stalk by which the sun-kissed, rain-plumped grape once hung from the vine. Then you rub it gently against the lips, feeling the ridges and valleys of its skin against yours, as it releases a hint of scent into the nostrils. Meanwhile, you contemplate the labour that had gone into tending the vines, turning the soil, picking the bunches, packing and transporting them across the world to you. Then you put it on your tongue – no teeth, not yet – and roll it around your mouth as the saliva begins to break down the molecules, merging its essence with your own. And when my brother finally – finally – bit down on that spit-softened morsel, it actually blew his mind. But who has the time to really, truly savour food?

When we are ill or homesick, we crave comfort food – those dishes that recreate the textures and flavours of our childhood

Speaking of savouring food, I am reminded of salt, that ubiquitous enhancer without which we would not be able to taste food properly. I often wonder what life would be like without it. No wonder it became such a powerful symbol for Gandhian freedom fighters, or that we praise someone who is good and kind as ‘the salt of the earth’. Interestingly, the word salt shares its etymological roots with salary, while taste and tax share roots with the Latin tastare (to test or sample) and taxare (to evaluate or charge for).

Growing up in England, it befuddled me that Hindi words for salty and sweet referred to entire food groups and not specific tastes. I still find it odd that people say that they either like or dislike ‘sweets’, as if the entire gamut – the silvery diamonds of kaju barfi, sugar-drenched spongy rasgullas that make your teeth squeak, piping hot jalebis oozing syrup, nutty earthern pots of mishti dahi – could all be lumped under one, diabetes-inducing umbrella. Asked what his favourite food was at a dinner party one night, a friend of mine replied with a wistful sigh, “Non-veg”.

Taste also refers to refinement and sophistication, something that had clearly passed by my non-veg-loving friend. Someone is said to have good taste if they are thought to be a fine judge of aesthetic standards – roughly translated, more often than not, as liking the same things as you.

Remy, the little rodent chef in Ratatouille, is appalled by his garbage-chomping brother Emile’s lack of discernment. “I have got to teach you about food!” he declares. “Close your eyes,” he says, giving Emile a piece of cheese to taste. As the background fades to black, “Chew it slowly,” he exhorts, “think only about the taste… see?” Unlike an earlier sequence when Remy’s sensations of taste leads to bursts of colour, swirls of light and symphonic music, Emile’s clumsy palate manages to conjure up only a grey blob. “Creamy, salty, sweet. An oaky nuttiness? You detect that?” Remy persists. With one eye half-open, Emile retorts, “Oh, I’m detecting nuttiness”. But when tasting a strawberry tart’s tang, while egged on by Remy’s descriptions, even Emile sees sounds and lights swirling and dancing – albeit briefly – before collapsing in a heap.

Sense & Sensuality

There are many films celebrating the taste, texture and smell of food: Chocolat; The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover; Babette’s Feast; Like Water for Chocolate. But they all rely on facial expressions to convey the ways in which food is relished. Ratatouille, on the other hand, transcends the literal. In the words of chef Gusteau, Remy’s idol and jovial spirit-guide in the world of haute cuisine, “Good food is like music you can taste, colour you can smell”.

Since that film is for children, the sexual side of things is kept to a minimum, but this is not the case in the other films. The way we use food to seduce, tantalise and delight is sweetly portrayed in both of the ‘chocolatey’ films mentioned above. Peter Greenaway, however, has a more macabre interpretation of the old saying ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.’ His movie – The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover – is the visual equivalent of a Roman banquet, so overwhelmingly rich, opulent and decadent that you stagger back from the cinema with the overwhelming desire to be sick and possibly never eat again, let alone have sex. The prize for the most enthusiastic exploration of the idea goes to the classic 1963 film based on Henry Fielding’s novel, Tom Jones, with the eponymous hero’s brilliantly saucy seduction scene with Mrs Waters over lobster, roast chicken, leg of lamb, hunks of bread, salacious oysters on the half-shell, and the naughtiest use of pears.

“We use the mouth for many things – to talk and kiss, as well as to eat,” explains Diane Ackerman. “The lips, tongue, and genitals all have the same neural receptors, called Krause’s end bulbs, which makes them ultrasensitive, highly charged. There’s a similarity of response.” Well, by the end of their meal, Tom and Mrs Waters’ bulbs are positively incandescent. Leaving the table strewn like a battlefield with their gustatory excesses, they drag each other off the screen, heading with indecent haste towards the bedroom.

But food is not just sensually arousing, it is also socially cementing. It is the grouting that holds together the individual bricks of society. From Timbuktu to Greenland, the Gobi Desert to Manhattan, we tend to eat together. The word ‘companion’ connotes someone with whom we share our bread (com ‘with’ + panis ‘bread’). In an etymological twist of fate that has to do with ancient Persians cooking their bread uncovered, naan shares its root – neogw – with naked, reminding us that in language, as in life, it is a short walk from the dining table to the bedroom.

Every schoolchild at some point has had to draw a diagram of the tongue, with different parts labelled for the different tastes: the back for bitter, the sides at the back for sour, the sides towards the front for salty, and the tip for sweetness. There is also the mysterious term umami – savouriness – coined by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. Strangely, this term that indicates a ‘basic taste’ has never made it into a metaphor: You never hear someone say, “Oh, did you meet Yuchiko? She’s so umami!” Although, come to think of it, maybe they do in Japanese.

The tongue-map makes a nice schematic, but it never really seemed plausible to me in reality. Scrunch into a gol gappa and you will know that the explosion of salty, spicy, sweet, watery, crunchy and tangy deliciousness cannot possibly be isolated on different parts of the tongue. It’s always gratifying to have vague suspicions subsequently turn out to be scientifically proven. This is why I am ecstatic that it is now accepted that all parts of the tongue can taste salt, sweet, bitter and sour – although the ‘threshold sensitivity’ for these basic flavours varies, very minutely, on different parts of the surface.

It is more intriguing to me that butterflies have their taste receptors on their feet. Parrots only have about 400 taste buds, and cows have over 20,000. Ackerman speculates that they need that many to enjoy “a relentless diet of grass”. Humans have up to 10,000 taste buds, mostly on the tongue, but also on the palate, pharynx and tonsils. Sometimes babies and young children have taste buds scattered on the cheeks. Our taste buds are replaced throughout our lives, but less frequently after the age of forty-five.

All of which goes to show, language and food are as inextricably twinned as bananas and toffee in a banoffee pie. And to bring us full circle to the beginning of this etymological and gustatory ramble, I am delighted to find out that a ‘cat’s tongue’ is also a small, vanilla-flavoured, elongated-oval-shaped cookie. It melts in the mouth, and is deliciously sweet – if you’re human, that is.

~Anita Roy was brought up on pasta and shepherd’s pie in Buckinghamshire, UK. She has lived and worked as an editor for the past 18 years in Delhi, where her taste buds have been thoroughly re-educated – although she still draws the line at karela.

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