What is Taste?
by Kurma Dasa
many years I have been intimately connected with all stages of the
food experience: Study of food history and geography, recipe research
and development, writing and testing recipes, growing plants and
herbs, shopping and selecting ingredients, menu planning, teaching,
and the penultimate, cooking.
However, the climax of all these is, and will always be, the final
enjoying experience.This is further facilitated by the sense of
All the above facets would have been a dry experience – akin
to licking the outside of a jar of honey – and would have
held little significance or attraction were it not for the sense
of taste. Yet there is more:the sense of taste holds no meaning
without it’s object – flavour.
The human craving for flavour has been a driving force in history.
Royal empires have been built, unexplored lands have been traversed,
great religions and philosophies have been forever changed by the
spice trade. In 1492 Christopher Columbus set sail to find seasoning.
Today the influence of flavour is no less decisive. The rise and
fall of corporate empires – of soft drink companies, snack
food companies, and fast food chains – is frequently determined
by how their products taste.
When we strip away the psychology of the eating experience, beyond
the culture, the aesthetics, the social aspects, and nutritional
needs, we are left with flavour. It is the quality of flavour that
people seek most of all in food. Yet this flavour is present in
a quantity too infinitesimal to be measured by any traditional culinary
terms such as grams, ounces or teaspoons.
Our modern food industry uses sophisticated spectrometers, gas
chromographs, and headspace vapour analysers to provide a detailed
map of a food’s flavour components, detecting chemical aromas
in amounts as low as one part per billion.
But the human nose is still more sensitive than any machine yet
invented. A nose can detect aromas present in quantities of a few
parts per trillion – an amount equivalent to 0.000000000003
percent. The smell of a strawberry, for instance, arises from the
interaction of at least 350 different chemicals that are present
in minute amounts.
You might be wondering here how we got on to talking about the
nose. Weren't we discussing taste? The answer is that you can't
have one without the other. The aroma of food is responsible for
up to 90 percent of its flavour.
We know that the taste buds on our tongues can detect the presence
of a half dozen or so tastes, including sweet, sour, bitter, salty,
astringent and hot. The taste buds however offer only a relatively
limited means of detection compared to the human olfactory system
that can perceive thousands of different aromas comprising myriad
chemical constituents. What we call flavour is, in fact, primarily
the smell of gases being released by the chemicals you’ve
just put in your mouth.
The act of chewing, sucking or drinking a substance releases its
volatile gases. They flow out the back of the mouth and up the nostrils,
or up the passageway in the back of the mouth, to a thin layer of
nerve cells called the olfactory epithelium, located at the base
of the nose, right between the eyes. The brain combines the complex
smell signals from the epithelium with the simple taste signals
from the tongue, assigns a flavour to what’s in your mouth,
and decides if it’s something you want to eat.
A person’s food preferences, like his or her personality,
are formed during the first few years of life, through a process
of intense conditioning by parents, peers and society. Toddlers
can learn to enjoy hot and spicy foods, bland food, or fast food,
depending on what people eat around them. This explains why many
of us have a favourite food which was originally prepared by our
mother, and how it is that no other cook can seem to provide that
same taste sensation.
Aroma and memory are also somehow inextricably linked. I am sure
we all have experienced a smell that brought us back 20, 30 or even
50 years to evoke a powerful, long forgotten memory.
The human sense of smell and taste goes further and can be greatly
affected by psychological factors and expectations, and is certainly
still not fully understood .
Yet above this there are higher, transcendent aspects of smell
and taste. Perhaps these subjects are beyond the scope of modern
science, yet to me they seem tangible and real. My years in the
kitchen have always been underscored by my spiritual perspectives.
It wouldn’t be fair to conclude this essay without sharing
some of those perspectives of smell and taste with you.
In India’s spiritual language Sanskrit, we find the word
punya. Punya means ‘that which is not decomposed’,
or ‘the original’. My first encounter with this word
was in the classic Bhagavad-gita. I bought a copy in Sydney
back in 1970 when I used to visit the old shop-front Hare Krishna
temple after school. A fragment of one of the Gita’s 700 verses
has always stayed with me:
‘punyo gandhah prithivyam ca’
The meaning of this phrase is “I am the original fragrance
of the earth”. Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead,
is telling his friend and disciple Arjuna of some of his divine
qualities. Everything in this world, he says, has a certain flavour
or fragrance, like the flavour and fragrance of a flower, or in
the earth, in water, in fire, or in air. The uncontaminated original
flavour, which permeates everything, is in fact God.
This initial introduction to transcendence stimulated something
very deep inside me, and gave me inspiration to delve further. I
read of how scholars of India’s classic spiritual literature
have compared the Vedas to what is known as a “desire tree”
because they contain all things knowable. They deal with mundane
necessities as well as spiritual realization. The Vedas contain
regulated principles of knowledge covering social, political, religious,
economic, military, medicinal, chemical, physical and metaphysical
subject matter and all that may be necessary to keep the body and
Above and beyond all this are specific directions for spiritual
realization. Regulated knowledge involves a gradual raising of the
living entity to the spiritual platform, and the highest spiritual
realization is knowledge that the Personality of Godhead is the
reservoir of all spiritual tastes, or rasas.
Every living entity, whether human, bird, beast or insect, desires
to relish some sort of taste derived from sense perceptions. These
sensual pleasures are technically called rasas. Such rasas
are of different varieties.
The sum total of all these rasas is called affection or
love. Spiritual exchange or rasa is fully exhibited in spiritual
existence between living beings and the Supreme Lord. The Supreme
Personality of Godhead is therefore described in the shruti-mantras,
Vedic hymns, as “the fountainhead of all tastes.”
Seeing taste, flavour, and indeed the world from this fascinating
and unique perspective has enabled me to gain access to what must
surely be a complete picture of reality.
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