Learning To Taste Food

I've been getting into some old seasons of the show MasterChef, the version that aired in the United States. It's by far my favorite cooking show. The human drama, the expertise of amazingly talented judges, the food the contestants cook, and how it always looking amazing, makes this the cooking show to watch.

I watch them cook and yearn, I watch the judges taste and yearn. I yearn for the ability to produce food that looks so appetizing, and I yearn for the ability to taste food discernibly, to understand its qualities.

My experience of food feels very one dimensional. It tastes bad, okay, good, or great. That's the granularity that I can use to judge food. There are no high or low notes within a single dish, it's just one of those four categories. I watch the judges in MasterChef taste the food and it's like they are dissecting it with their tongue and their senses, understanding the individual flavors, how they play together, and they can then put this all together to make an assessment of the dish (usually either perfect or horrible).

I've looked online at how to taste food. I know it's more than holding up your forkful of food at an angle, giving it a concentrated/concerned look, and then peering off into the distance as you chew (I tried to imitate Graham Eliot from the show but that did nothing for me).

The advice I found mostly had the same suggestions:

  • smell the food first and engage your other senses
  • eat more slowly and concentrate on every bite
  • focus your thought and concentration on the bite you have in your mouth, and actively try to taste the food

I think the third is the one that's been most helpful. I find that when I eat food my mind is often elsewhere, like the only thing that required my attention was making sure the fork made it successfully into my mouth, then I could check out while my jaws grind the food to mush. I've been slowly changing that. I keep my focus on what's happening in my mouth as I chew, and I've begun to experience some flavors. It's almost as if I can detect shadows of them amidst the bites. I flirt with them. If I try to press into any one sensation for too long it disappears, making me question whether it was ever there at all. Was that a bitter note? I don't know. Oh this needs more salt! ... I think.

What it comes down to is that I'm trying to learn to taste food with my tongue, not with my teeth. It's a slow progression, and one where the aim becomes less about how much I can eat, but rather how much I can taste of what I eat.

But old habits die hard.