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A Matter of Taste - 
Are there four tastes for five? 


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Written by Rhonda Parkinson 

It's a common occurrence: we sit down at the dinner table, sample a piece of food, and pronounce how it tastes. Perhaps we find it sweet or salty. Maybe it was too bitter. But how do we know?

People commonly treat taste and flavor as one and the same, but there is a distinction. According to the Oxford Dictionary, taste is the "sensation caused in mouth by contact with a substance." Meanwhile, flavor is "the mixed sensation of smell and taste." In other words, taste plus smell equals flavor. Our ability to taste comes from taste buds located mainly on the tips, sides, and back of the tongue. Remember those diagrams in science class showing separate taste areas neatly laid out on different parts of the tongue? The actual arrangement isn't quite that simple. Each taste bud is composed of numerous taste cells, some of which respond to sweet molecules, while others respond to bitter molecules and so forth. Furthermore, the receptivity of specific taste cells can change over time; one reason why people often find their taste preferences changing in later years.

Although all of the above is established fact, there is some dispute in the scientific community over just how many taste sensations we have. In the west, it's generally accepted that there are four: sweet, bitter, sour, and salty. By contrast, the Chinese believe we possess a fifth taste sensation for pungent foods. This fits nicely with the Five Elements Theory that is the cornerstone of Chinese philosophical thought, as each taste sensation corresponds to one of the five elements: water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. Five spice powder, a seasoning used frequently in Chinese dishes, embodies each of the five tastes.

While researching this article I was unable to find a specific individual credited with developing the four tastes theory.  By contrast, in China the view that there are five taste sensations is generally attributed to Yi Yin, an historic figure who lived in the sixteenth century BC. There are several stories surrounding Yi Yin's early life, and how he eventually attained the rank of Prime Minister to King Tang. Thought to have once served as a cook in the King's Court, he was said to be skilled in the art of herbal medicine. 

Yi Yin's contribution to culinary knowledge is recorded in Lu-shih Ch'un Ch'iu, or "The Spring and Autumn (Annals) of Mr. Lu." The annals represent a massive undertaking in the third century BC by another Prime Minister, Lu Pu-wei, to create an encyclopedia containing all the world's knowledge. Sadly, Mr. Lu came to an untimely end, drinking poison after he was caught engaging in a rather complicated scheme to remove the current Emperor. However, his encyclopedia outlasted his good name, remaining an invaluable resource for those interested in Chinese history.

As for the theory of five tastes, it gained further support in 1908, when Japanese researcher Kikunae Ikeda found that the glutamate contained in seaweed sauce triggered a fifth taste which the Japanese call umami. It's hard to describe umami. It's commonly translated as meaning "meaty" or "savory" but there's more to it than that - an incomparable taste sensation that encompasses all of the senses (one newspaper article I found equated it with perfect sex). Ikeda's discovery led to the mass production of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) a flavor enhancer widely used in Chinese and Japanese cooking. Last year researchers at the University of Miami succeeded in proving that taste receptors for umami exist, making it likely that the existence of five tastes will eventually gain general acceptance. 

Of course, these aren't the only forays into the world of taste and taste sensations. In The Oxford Companion to Food (1999 edition) Alan Davidson describes a fascinating theory developed in the mid-1700's by Pere Polycarpe. Linking tastes with musical notes, he concludes that there are actually seven tastes. However, Davidson notes that two aren't really tastes - one being a combination of sweet and sour, and the other referring more to a lack of taste - bringing the total number back down to five.

This Week's Recipes.
Beef and Peppers in Black Bean Sauce
Beggar's ChickenBird's Nest with Rock Sugar Soup
Chicken and Rice Wrapped in Lotus Leaves (Lo Mai Gai)
Feng Shui Sweet and Sour Shrimp
Honey Beef Stir-fry - Sweet and tart with honey and black rice vinegar
Hot and Sour Soup
Pineapple Chicken with Sweet and Sour Sauce
Salt and Pepper Shrimp
Spicy Salt and Pepper Chicken Wings Spicy Soy Sauce ChickenStir-fried Bitter MelonSweet and Sour ChickenSweet and Sour Chicken with LemonSweet and Sour Pork, Cantonese StyleSweet and Sour Sauce
Related Articles
The Five Elements Theory in Chinese Cooking - My article explaining the five elements theory, how it is used in Chinese medicine and how different tastes correspond to each of the five elements. Includes a description of five spice powder.

Physiology of Taste  - Everything you wanted to know about how your taste bud works, along with some great photos, from Biology Guide Regina Bailey. 

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