Anatomy of Taste


“Everyone eats and drinks, but few appreciate taste.”
Confucius (551-479 BC)

The sense of taste is one of the most pleasurable of the five senses.  Taste (the scientific term is gustatory perception) is the sensation that occurs when the mouth reacts chemically with the receptors located in our taste buds.  We have approximately 10,000 taste buds ― on the tongue, on the sides and the roof of the mouth.  Traditionally, our taste buds recognize four basic tastes: sweet, salty, bitter and sour.  According to the conventional (now, much disputed) “tongue map,” different regions of the tongue are sensitive to each of these tastes.  The sour taste buds line the sides of the tongue and the bitter taste buds can be found at the back of the tongue. The salty/sweet taste buds are located at the front of the tongue (sweet at the tip and salty on each side of the tip).  I call them the Yin and Yang tastes because so often we crave both, one after the other ― like the overwhelming desire to have a scoop of ice cream right after eating a meal of seasoned burgers and fries.

As a child, I was a chocoholic.  I had to have a chocolate fix each day and my mother indulged me, with the caveat that one day, I would probably not eat as much of the stuff. I remember looking at her incredulously, because it was beyond the scope of my childish comprehension that there would ever be a life without chocolate. If that same little girl could have looked through a crystal ball and see herself as the grown woman she is today, that little girl would be shocked, disbelieving and horrified. I rarely eat chocolate any more. I still enjoy it, but I don’t crave it as much.  So, a nibble − every so often − is enough to satisfy me. 

My mother was right.

I now prefer savory foods. 

In the beginning of the twentieth century, Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda determined that there was a fifth taste, Umami (Japanese for a delicious, savory taste).  According to Professor Ikeda, savory taste was very distinct from salty taste.

Umami reigns supreme in my gustatory system, which is why I love savory Mediterranean, Middle-eastern and Indian foods. They are spicy, savory and quite simply a gustatory delight.


My favorite Greek food − Chicken Souvlaki with rice, potatoes, and horiatiki salad

Our sense of taste evolves as we grow older. What often repelled us as children, delight us as adults. Take wine, for example. As a little girl, I sniffed my mother’s glass of wine and recoiled in disgust.  I declared that there was no way that I would ever – ever – drink that horrible libation.  My mother just threw her head back and laughed. Her sisters (my aunts), who were visiting at the time, also laughed – tears streaming down their faces.  My mother said, “My little darling, you will love wine one day. All the women in our family do, and have done so …  for generations. It’s simply in our genes.”  At the time, I  was unconvinced.

My mother was right.

I am now somewhat of an oenologist, a serious wine aficionado. I suppose I couldn’t escape my fate.  It’s in my genes. And I am happy that I have many memories of my mother and I (as an adult) spending many evenings together, sipping wine and sharing stories.

I raise a glass of crisp Chablis (her favorite), in memory of my mother.  She was quite a dame.


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To Listen (and really Hear)

A few days ago, I spoke about how (as we age) we become more appreciative of our five senses.   Although the senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch are — in each their own way — unique and valuable, one stands out above the rest :  Hearing.  

Now, I am not speaking literally (i.e. hearing a sound). If I were being literal, I would give first priority to the physical ability to see.

But, I am speaking metaphysically.  

I am keenly fascinated by Taoist philosophy. Taoism (modernly referred to as Daoism, which is a more accurate English pronunciation of the Chinese word) is an ancient Chinese philosophy and religion whose core belief centers upon the Tao (also referred to as Dao).  Tao means the Way (or Path) … the underlying law of the universe.  Tao is not God, nor is it worshipped.  It is a religious philosophy of  unity and opposites:  Yin and Yang — where the universe is composed of complementary opposites like  dark and light, hot and cold, action and inaction, feminine and masculine.  Harmony or unity with nature, self-development,  the pursuit of spiritual immortality, and living a virtuous (humbly so) life — these are  the basic tenets of Taoism.

The theory of Yin and Yang is also central to all Oriental health practices. And, the root of all health is Ch’i.  In his book “The Book of Ch’i: Harnessing the Healing Force of Energy,” author Paul Wildish writes:

“Ch’i is “breath,” it is the air that we breathe and at the same moment the energy and vitality that sustain us.  Everything we see, or touch, or experience is composed of ch’i and is merely an arrangement of this energy into recognizable form.  It is a concept comparable to the explanation of quantum physics for the structure of atoms and molecules as accumulations of energy organized into distinct patterns.  Our whole existence is determined by this energy.  All facets of human life, our physical health, mental alertness, and emotional stability are conditioned by the levels and the relative flow of ch’i in and around our bodies.  Summoning, conserving, and using ch’i therefore is vital to maintaining a happy and healthy life  …. Ch’i operates through the bipolar dynamic of yin and yang, in a constant process of transmutation.  When we breathe in it is yin and when we breathe out it is yang … Good health is founded on establishing a natural cyclic equilibrium of these two forces.”

So, now you understand where I’m coming from when I say that “I am speaking metaphysically.”  I view the importance of the senses (notably the sense of “hearing”) as harmonizing with nature and thus contributing to our quest for self-development.

The 6th century Chinese philosopher (also known as the Father of Taoism) Lao Tzu (“Old Sage”) best articulates what I am trying to say about the importance of listening (and really hearing):

“It is hard to hear anything when you are doing the talking. Appreciate the value of silence, listen to the world around you and gain understanding from the insights it offers. “

In my reality, as perhaps in yours as well, this may mean listening to someone (be it friend, family or even a stranger) who needs a sounding board, a compassionate ear.  Or, it may be someone who wants you to go beyond listening, to really hear what he is trying to say (although he is not speaking).  In this case, you have to hear what his silence is telling you.  And then, understand.

Aye, there’s the rub.

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