Why is describing palatal sensation difficult?

By on November 10, 2014
Ever since food and social media started a romance, scores of restaurant marketers have turned their attention to seducing Facebookers, instagrammers or pinteresters with food photos. In fact, Facebook reports that the kind of photos likely to go viral are those of food.

Indeed, a picture is worth a thousand words yet when it comes to describing food taste, most people struggle to find a more articulate expression.

When restaurant diners are asked to comment on food taste on Japanese tv, clichés are often used. Descriptors like oishii (delicious), sappari shitte imasu (light, refreshing), or umai (pleasing taste) are nothing short of inarticulate. The same is true with foodie sites in foreign languages where a general description is focused on the process of cooking and ingredients used with less descriptive words for food taste.

Describing a palatal sensation is arguably hard.
Case in point. Noted American chef, writer and food worshipper Anthony Bourdain likes to use “great-tasting”, “glorious”, “awesome” and frequently relies on metaphors to describe the taste of food he samples.

In one or two interviews, one of the ten top ranking celebrity chefs of French Gastronomy, Jean-Christophe Novelli uses “wonderful” more than once to refer to the taste of food.

Nowhere in the 1,206-page French cooking bible Larousse Gastronomique, lists descriptors for ” delicieux” other than charming and enjoyable.

In Japanese language, only two adjectives are usually uttered by food reviewers: “oishii” , expressed in two Kanji characters literally translates to ‘beautiful taste’ or ‘umai’ (pleasing taste), predominantly used by local males.

Is there really a lack of a more articulate expression for food taste?

Truth be told, asking people to describe why they like a certain food in profound ways appears to be difficult even for food experts because taste is perceived in many different forms.

Food is sensory as well as a social experience. Food is also malleable. According to scientists, the five primary taste sensations (salty, sour, sweet, bitter, umami) activated by taste buds through receptor cells that trigger action in the brains affect one’s personal opinion of food. One feels it but the sensation (good or bad) going on in the taste buds can hardly be described in a more articulate manner.

For some, food is a cultural experience. For others, it is an emotional attachment to people, places as well as socio-economic status. With food and fashion being intertwined, a new meaning has beed added to connote cosmopolitanism that has given birth to food snobbery.

About Julie Wilson