You would think that, taste being such a fundamental part of human culture and survival, we would know all about it.
When I was a child, we were taught that there were four tastes: sweet, salt, bitter, and sour. Later, scientists discovered the taste, umami—the taste of glutamates, inosinate and guanylate–found in many foods, including meat, vegetables and dairy products, and often added to Asian foods in the form of MSG.
Now, scientists have discovered a sixth taste—oleogustus, or fat. Like bitter, fat is a flavour that, by itself, is disgusting. It is only in mixing with other flavours that fat becomes palatable (think chocolate—by itself, it is almost inedibly bitter, but add sugar and it’s delicious).
This sixth taste makes sense to me. The best foods combine all the flavours, and I’ve always maintained that a little fat goes a long way to making food taste good. Vegetable soup made by simply boiling the vegetables is flat. But sauté the onions first, adding a little fat, and suddenly the soup tastes rich.
The best foods include all the tastes. Think about the worldwide popularity of tomato sauces. Tomatoes are themselves an incredible mixture of sweet, sour and umami. Add to them some sautéed onions for a little fat, a handful of bitter herbs like oregano and rosemary, and a little salt, and you’ve got a sauce that excites all the senses. Serve it with a grating of Parmesan cheese (with fat, salt, and umami), and it doesn’t get much better.
And, of course, it explains why a beer begs for peanuts and pretzels alongside it—the sour and bitter of the beer need the fat, salt, sweet and umami in the peanuts and pretzels to join them!