NEW SCIENTIST – FINE FLAVOURS: THE UNSUSPECTED TALENTS OF YOUR TASTE BUDS
EVEN with a blue foam nose-clip cutting off my sense of smell, I know I’m eating something remarkable. I’ve come to an ordinary-looking office at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, where only a scattering of plates and cutlery hint at what I’m here for. When my host Jozef Youssef, of food science collaboration Kitchen Theory, places two dishes of risotto in front of me, he has actually forgotten which contains the mysterious ingredient I’m here to try. But to me the difference is unmistakable. One is zingy, salty, creamy. The other pales in comparison.
The secret behind the more delectable of the two dishes is the kokumi ingredients Youssef has spiked it with. Kokumi is a flavour concept originating in Japan that some foodies think could rank alongside the four familiar fundamental tastes, salt, sweet, bitter and sour. With many food flavours actually due to smell rather than taste, the fact that I experience kokumi’s potency with my nose disabled certainly suggests something special is going on.
The discovery of kokumi is just one of many taste phenomena that have recently taken scientists by surprise. Our efforts to understand what constitutes taste have led us to realise how strange this sense really is. For one thing, it isn’t just confined to our mouths – it crops up in all sorts of unexpected corners of our bodies. It’s becoming clear that taste is about more than just pleasure. It is hardwired into our basic biology and we are just learning how to harness it.
When we eat something, what we experience is its flavour, a …