Posted in Science & Nature

Salt And Flavour

A well-known cooking fact is that salt “brings out the flavour” of foods. This not only applies to meats and vegetables, but also unlikely foods and drinks such as brownies, watermelons, coffee and chocolate milk.

Salt (sodium chloride) will dissolve in water to form sodium and chloride ions. Sodium ions interfere with the way your taste buds sense flavour, suppressing bitterness. This is why adding a dash of salt to coffee and chocolate milk will make it taste fuller and smoother.

Furthermore, the sodium ions enhance flavour by making taste buds more sensitive for other flavours such as sweet, sour and umami (savoury). Lastly, in the case of chocolate milk, the slight salty taste gives a greater contrast for the sweet flavour, making the drink taste slightly sweeter.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

A Sensational Experience

We use our senses to interpret the world around us. Thanks to photography, video and sound recording, we are able to preserve what we see and hear in our lives. If you have the good fortune of seeing an incredible view such as a beautiful sunset, you can take a photo, look at it ten years later and remember what it was like watching it with your own eyes. If you miss the sound of your loved one’s voice, you can record the sound and play it again.

However, we are still unable to record senses such as taste, smell and touch. No matter how hard you try, you can never perfectly describe the taste of your mother’s cooking, the soft touch that you felt during your first kiss, or the scent of the person you love to another person using just words. This means that these sensations are only in your memories – and yours alone.

It is a shame that you cannot recall these experiences perfectly, as some of our best memories are associated with them. But perhaps you could think of it from a romantic point of view. You can share a photo or a sound clip with others to share your experience – even make it public so that everyone can know of it. However, with things like taste and smell, only you will know and remember that specific sensation. It is a truly unique experience that belongs only to you (and the few others who were lucky to have tasted your mother’s cooking).

Furthermore, as it is only in your memories, the moment you forget about it, the experience will disappear forever. Maybe that is why people cling to nostalgia of these senses – because it is a fragile yet precious thing that is worth treasuring and holding on to.

Posted in Science & Nature


Among the many hot beverages the world enjoys, tea is probably the number one. No matter how many people drink coffee, no beverage has a history like tea. From the tea ceremony cultures of the East to the Boston Tea Party of the West, the history of tea is long and full of stories. As everyone knows, tea is a drink made by boiling down the leaves of a plant. There are many types of tea: black, oolong, green, yellow and white being the most common. Teas made from more aromatic plants such as jasmine and chamomile are typically put in a separate category known as herbal teas. One surprising fact about tea is that most of them are derived from the same plant.

The plant Camellia sinensis is the source of all teas, with the aforementioned black, oolong, green, yellow and white teas all coming from the leaves of this one plant. However, what makes each tea unique is the way the leaves are processed. For example, if you steam freshly picked leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant then dry them out, you make green tea. If you wither the leaves then lightly crush and bruise them to promote oxidisation, you make black tea. The different ways of processing tea leaves gives each type of tea a unique flavour due to a variety in the ratio of various chemicals. For example, black tea is rich in tannin because of oxidisation, whereas green and oolong teas are milder as they have higher levels of catechins than tannin (the oxidised product of catechin). As catechins act as antioxidants in the human body, green tea is effective in slowing the aging process.

Although the source of the leaves are the same, the different ways of processing makes each tea unique in their ways of preparation. The milder white, yellow and green teas are best prepared by steeping them in water heated to (or cooled from boiling) 70~80°C for 1~2 minutes, while oolong and black tea should be steeped for 2~3 minutes in near-boiling water (80~99°C) for the best taste.

Posted in Life & Happiness


A delicacy is a food considered highly desirable due to its unique taste and rarity. Every culture has a different delicacy, ranging from commonly found but peculiar foods such as raw oysters, to very rare foods such as flamingo tongue (a highly prized dish in ancient Rome). Some examples of culture-specific delicacies include: beondaegi in Korea (steamed silkworm pupae), fugu in Japan (blowfish, very poisonous if not prepared correctly), bird’s nest soup in China (made out of swiftlet nests which are made of various fish) and escamoles in Mexico (ant larvae). In the Western hemisphere, three foods have classically been called the “three great delicacies”. These are: foie gras, truffle and caviar.

Foie gras is French for “fatty liver” and it is the liver of a goose that has been fattened up. Because of the rich fat content, foie gras is extremely smooth, buttery and delicate and is highly sought after in gourmet cooking. However, there is much controversy around the preparation of the dish. To fatten the liver, geese are tied up and force-fed large amounts of feed via a funnel and tube. This method is known as “gavage”. Because the geese are held still and force-fed so much food, there is a risk of the oesophagus rupturing and killing the geese. But this death could almost be considered merciful given the horrendous gavage process that can only be considered as torturous.

Truffle is a type of mushroom that lives underground. It is difficult to find and cultivate, making it a rare and valuable ingredient. In fact, it is considered “diamond of the earth” because of that reason. Truffles come in black truffles and white truffles. Black truffles are more commonly used in French dishes, along with simple-tasting foods such as soup and veal. It is also eaten alongside foie gras sometimes. The white version is more common in Italian foods. It is eaten raw and grated over a dish or salad.

Caviar is a Russian delicacy consisting of salted sturgeon roe (fish egg). It is considered one of the most luxurious foods on the planet, with some connoisseurs describing it as the culinary equivalent of an orgasm. Because the roe is not cooked, it retains its unique fishy taste which might make it unpalatable at first. But then people become hooked on the unique, addictive taste that cannot be copied. The price of $8000~16000 per kilogram shows just how much people are willing to pay for the ultimate taste.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Sweet Tooth

It is interesting to see how people tend to use taste-related metaphors to describe other people. If a person is hostile or spiteful, we describe them as “bitter”. If a person is sullen and gloomy, we say they are “sour”. Perhaps the most extensively used taste is “sweetness”. People have a tendency of calling their loved ones sweet-related names, such as “honey”, “sweetie”, “sugar” or “sweetheart”. This is directly reflected in the tradition of giving chocolate to a loved one on Valentine’s Day. Quite obviously, this is because we find sweetness the most palatable taste and something that is nice. On a related note, could there be a relationship between sweetness and personalities?

A group of psychologists decided to study whether people who like sweet foods, or “sweet tooth”s, have a certain personality trait or not. They did a survey where participants were asked what foods they liked most out of a list of 50 foods covering five tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, spicy). They also answered questions that gave an indication of their agreeableness (one of the five components of OCEAN personality traits). The psychologists then analysed whether there was an association between sweet tooths and agreeableness. Interestingly, a direct correlation was found between a liking of sweets and higher levels of agreeableness. This suggested that people who like sweet things tend to be more friendly, cooperative and compassionate.

But is the cause-and-effect relationship so simple? Could it be that sweet things cause people to be nicer? In a separate experiment, participants were randomly given a sweet food (chocolate), a not-sweet food (cracker) or no food. They were then asked to volunteer their time to help someone. It was found that those who were given something sweet were more willing to help another person compared to the other two groups.

This makes logical sense as eating sweets such as chocolate causes your brain to release a flood of hormones such as endorphin and serotonin from the absolute pleasure of the experience. These hormones make us feel happy, blissful and in love, which in turn make us more agreeable and willing to cooperate.

Although sweetness has numerous negative effects on the body such as weight gain and diabetes, there is no doubt that it is greatly beneficial for your mental health. If there is a bitter person around you, give them a good dose of chocolate to help them develop a sweeter personality. Or perhaps all they need is a sweet romance.

(Image source:

Posted in Science & Nature


Normally when people think of “tastes”, they think of sweet, salty, sour and bitter (“spicy”, or piquance is not a taste). However, in 1985 the family of four basic tastes were introduced to a new member: umami. Umami, commonly known as “savouriness” is a taste that has had its own word in Asian countries (e.g. 감칠맛, or gamchilmaht in Korean) for thousands of years but has not had a proper English word until very recently (much like piquance). Umami is a portmanteau of two Japanese words: うまい(umai) and (mi), which means “delicious” and “taste” respectively.

Sweetness comes from glucose, saltiness from sodium and sourness from acids. Then where does umami come from? Umami is the taste born from glutamates, which is found in high concentrations in meat products, thus leading to the association between umami and the taste of meat. For example, bacon is known to have six different types of umami flavours, creating a unique and addictive taste. Another product high in glutamate is monosodium glutamate, or MSG. MSG is essentially glutamate plus a sodium ion and thus brings out the full taste of umami when added to food. As umami has a powerful effect of boosting appetite and having a slightly addictive property means that chefs like putting MSG in foods to boost sales. Contrary to popular belief that MSG is detrimental to your health, recent researches have shown that unless you have an allergy to it, MSG is safe to consume even in high concentrations.


Posted in Psychology & Medicine


On May 24, 1976, a British wine merchant called Steven Spurrier organised a wine competition to determine the top wine from different areas of France and California. The panel of French judges were all wine connoisseurs who would blind taste the wines to give an objective rating. The event, which would later be called the Judgement of Paris, was a turning point in wine history and also shows a fascinating point regarding the arts.

It was predicted by every judge (including Spurrier himself) that the French wine would trump the Californian wine in every field. For how could Californian wine – with only a history of a century or so – beat top-quality, traditional wine from France, famous for its wine since 6th century BC? Even after the tastings, the judges were confident that the wine that they gave the top rating was indubitably French. Unfortunately, they were wrong.

Californian wine were rated best for both red and white wine, critically damaging the reputation of French wine and the validity of wine tasting (even after several complaints, adjustments and re-testing, Californian wine still came out top).

People believed that French wine would be better quality because of the stereotype that French wine is the best. The experiment  showed that there is no real basis for such a stereotype. Therefore, the real reason people pay more for wine from French vineyards is not because it tastes better, but because they want to appear classy and well-cultured. It is possible this also applies to the price of the wine – where people buy more expensive wine believing that it must be better than the wine that is $5 cheaper.

Another experiment highlights how the taste of wine can be affected by classiness. It has been scientifically shown that people buy more expensive wine in supermarkets if there is classical music playing compared to any other genre. The classical music gives an air of high class, leading the person to make their wine choice accordingly.

The same phenomenon is found with art. There have been numerous cases where art critics acclaimed a piece of abstract art, believing the artist to be the next Jackson Pollock, until they found out it was drawn by a 2-year old child or an elephant.

In short, high class is a completely subjective term with absolutely no practical value – other than giving the person a false, pompous feeling of superiority. What matters in art is not whether it is “good” or not, but whether you enjoy it or not.

Posted in Science & Nature


When the word taste is mentioned, people often think of sweet, sour, bitter, salty, savoury and spicy. But among these, only the first five are officially “tastes”. Spiciness is technically not a taste; it is rather a type of pain.
Due to the confusion between the words hot (which could mean temperature) and spicy (suggesting there are spice, but not specifying what type), scientists devised a new word called piquance to correctly name the sensation.
Piquance is caused by chemicals such as capsaicin stimulating the densely packed nerve fibres in mucous membranes in the mouth, causing pain. This sensation can be sensed anywhere covered by thin skin or membrane such as the eye. Tear gas and pepper spray exploit this by attacking the eyes, disabling sight, and the respiratory system, crippling breathing by inducing cough reflexes, to nullify the target.

Being a sensation, piquance can be seen as a subjective measure. Is there an objective way of measuring the piquance of a food?
In 1912, an American pharmacist called Wilbur Scoville utilised the fact that piquance is due to capsaicin to create something called the Scoville Scale. This scale’s unit is 1 Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) and is proportionate to the level of capsaicin.
The following is a list of many types of chilli and their SHU:

  • Paprika: 0
  • Peperoncini: 100-150
  • Jalapeño pepper/Tabasco sauce: 2,500-8,000
  • Chungyang red pepper: 10,000-23,000
  • Habanero chilli: 100,000-350,000
  • Red Savina habanero: 350,000-58,0000
  • Naga Jolokia: 1,067,286
  • Naga Viper: 1,382,118
  • Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper: 1,463,700 (currently the world’s hottest pepper)
  • Tear gas/pepper spray: 5,300,000
  • Pure capsaicin: 16,000,000

Posted in Science & Nature

Taste Of Water

It is a common chemical fact that water is flavourless and odourless. However, most people will know that water “tastes” subtly different each time.
Taste is composed of information from taste buds on the tongue, combined with the sense of smell from your nose. Although water itself has no flavour or smell, it has many things dissolved in it such as gases and minerals that can be tasted.
This is why tap water can taste bad due to the chlorine used to treat it, or metals such as copper that have come off the pipes. 

It is also well known that temperature affects the taste of water. The ideal temperature is between 10~17°C, where oxygen saturation is sufficient, giving the water a “refreshing” taste. Any hotter and the oxygen escapes, giving the water a flat taste, just like distilled water. Warm water also causes the brain to think it is saliva or mucus, sometimes producing an uncomfortable sensation. Any colder, the tongue is numbed and it loses its ability to taste.

When making tea, the ideal temperature is 70~80°C. A simple way to achieve this is by leaving a cup of boiled water for a minute or two before putting the teabag in. This is the temperature when the dissolving of the various chemicals in tea leaves is optimal. If it is too hot, bitter-tasting tannins and catechins are released in excess, whereas if it is too cool, not enough dissolving occurs.


Posted in Philosophy

An Opinion On The Senses

There are five physical senses and five mental senses.

The physical senses are sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.

The mental senses are emotions, imagination, intuition, understanding and inspiration.

If a person only uses their five physical senses to live, that is like using the five fingers on their left hand only.

(Die fünf Sinne (The Five Senses) by Hans Makart, 1840-1884)