The sense of taste is centered in the tongue. Taste buds there discriminate between sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and possibly savory. The perception of flavor, however, is centered in the mind.
The mind puts together the flavor of food by combining its taste, its aroma, and the physical sensations experienced as the food is eaten. Flavor is aroma, a complicated thing, further enhanced by temperature, texture, presentation, and coordination. Most of all, flavor is enhanced by memory.
Temperature affects flavor in several ways. Chilling numbs the sense of sweetness, so that cold foods are sweet without cloying. Conversely, hot foods send flavor billowing towards the complicated apparatus in the nose that speeds them straight to the brain. The moisture of steam also enhances flavor.
Texture enhances flavor with an aural element. Consider the crunch when we bite into fresh corn, crusty bread, or roasted chicken. It is a primitive reassurance that the food is fresh, and signals a release of intense flavor as the crust is penetrated.
The rich silky texture of fat is a flavor carrier too, intensifying everything it touches. It also brings moisture and succulence to food.
Chewy food has texture that suggests an earthy, genuine quality, valued in rustic breads and rich grain dishes.
The textures of some vegetables testify that they were picked ripe, and cooked perfectly.
Herbs can be combined so that food does not taste like oregano, but like a traditional dish from Cyprus or Syracuse. To cite an example almost everyone has experienced, tomato and basil enhance each other, both becoming more than they were alone. Food marriages bring out each partner’s essence, blending their tastes and aromas into a complicated flavor.
Great chefs work with seafood to recreate a sense of the oceans. Goose is combined with fruit and bread to recreate Christmas.
Wine is the great contributor, adding smoothness or sharpness to combinations, cleansing the senses and preparing the diner for more flavor.
The great chefs plate food carefully. They pile it up in whimsical towers, to encourage a diner’s sense of fantasy. They set each item apart on a large plate, to spotlight each contrasting taste. They offer improbable combinations, to surprise their guests with unexpected flavors.They think about the colors of food. Bright colors show freshness, while subtle earthy colors speak of long cooking and great care.The building, the room, the menu, the tableware, all are part of presentation, and each contributes to flavor.
Scientists know that scent connects directly with the memory centers in the brain. The aromas of food call up particular emotion-laden memories of holidays, reunions, birthdays, and special suppers. That is why we speak of home cooking, homemade, and the taste of home.
Some flavors bring back childhood, hinting of strawberry ice cream on a pier over the water, potato salad at a wooden table on the grass, or linguisa with mustard at a dusty county fair. Some cooking evokes these flavors, bringing them back and, however briefly, transporting diners to another place and time.