Monday, March 29, 2010

Salt. Sweet. Bitter. Acid. Umami. Fat?

Reuter’s Life! (!?) reports that Australian researchers claim to have “discovered” a sixth taste: fat. Published in the British Journal of Nutrition, the study argues that human tongues can detect “fatty tastes” and that some people have a high sensitivity to the taste while others do not. Those with a higher sensitivity tend to consume less fat and weigh less.

I can buy into the suggestion that fat is something that we can detect in food. Many studies show that the ability to detect the different tastes can vary considerably, so it makes sense that some people are more adept at detecting fat than others.

But is fat a taste? Or is it a texture? Does it matter? Well, maybe to the researchers, whose job it is to tuck everything into neat little cubbyholes and turn our world from analog to digital. In the west, when I grew up, schools taught that there are four tastes: Salt, Sweet, Bitter, Acid. Today, thanks to Japan, they add Umami. Some eastern cultures include spice (or piquancy); others add astringency to the list.

Whether it’s taste or texture isn’t all that important. I prefer to think of “taste” as a continuum of sensations and textures. So, yes, there are Salt, Sweet, Bitter, Acid, and Umami. There are also the “heat” of spiciness and the sensation of “cold” that we get from cucumber, fennel, lime, or mint. There’s astringency from tannins; there’s minerality and metallic; there’s the range from light-bodied to heavy; there’s temperature. So, yeah, fat is there too.

When matching wine with food, we consider all these elements. Fat contributes to a smoother, richer, moister mouthfeel in food. To complement that fat mouthfeel, go for richer, full-bodied wines. If you’re looking for a contrast, then tannins in red wine mellow out the fat sensation. High acidity in white wines (without oak aging) also offers a contrast.

Complement or contrast? That’s the fun of pairing. Perhaps those folks who are sensitive to fat need the contrast of tannins or acidity, those who are fat-cravers might like the complement of a full-bodied blockbuster. Just remember what Rick Nelson said,

But it's all right now, I learned my lesson well.
You see, ya can't please everyone, so ya got to please yourself.

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