Did you know that …
- Flavor is a complex mixture of sensations including taste, texture and aroma, with 80 percent of the flavor experience coming from aroma and only 20 percent from taste and texture.
- The sensation of taste includes five established basic tastes; in addition to sweet, sour, salty and bitter, there is umani, a savory taste described as brothy or meaty. Umani was added to the lexicon of taste in 1985.
- Modern humans have lost two-thirds of the oderant genes we once shared with our prehistoric ancestors. Of the original 1,000 oderant genes, we are down to an average of only 350 — or 380 in the subgroup of “super smellers.”
These were among the fun facts shared by MDI Biological Laboratory Science Outreach Coordinator, Robert L. Morris, Ph.D., who served as master of ceremonies for the recent Taste of Science dinner for about 75 members of the institution’s Star Point Society. The theme of the dinner was “fire and ice,” or the spicy flavors that excite our palates and the cooling flavors that balance them.
Morris, who is the William and Elsie Prentice professor of biology at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., shared the spotlight with Amanda Kendall, chef and owner of Sassafrass Catering of Salsbury Cove, Maine, who introduced each course with a description of the menu items, and how they were created to inspire new insights into the science of taste and the elements that go into the complex sensation we know as flavor.
As intriguing as the Morris’ science facts and Kendall’s descriptions were, however, the evening’s star performer was the food, which featured local ingredients assembled into an exciting medley of taste sensations. Each bite zinged, soothed, delighted or amused the palate in ways that were unfailingly surprising, and sometimes confounding for diners accustomed to being able to identify the ingredients in what they are eating.
The dinner began with a specialty drink called “The Bitter Pill,” a concoction of grapefruit, basil, Lillet and Campari that targeted the taste buds’ bitter receptors. Next came three appetizers, each of which appealed to the bitter receptors with a different constellation of flavors and textures. The decision on a vote for the favorite fell to skewered smoked scallops with hopped apply jelly, which demonstrated the moderating influence of the sensation of creaminess.
The salad, which explored how salt in the form of lardon, or smoked pork belly, enhances other flavors, was followed by a “fire and ice” main course that demonstrated how the sensation of pungency is expressed in dishes from various cultures. The guests worked their way across their plates from the hottest dish, an Indian curried fish with coconut sambal, or hot sauce, and minty yogurt, to a mild dish featuring sautéed mushrooms and broccoli, sea beans and cucumbers flavored with prik nam pla, a Thai condiment. Occupying the middle ground in terms of spiciness was a Mexican-style, coffee-braised beef brisket, with jalapeño and carrot hot sauce and a cashew “crema.”
While taste alone was sufficient inducement for the enjoyment of these foods, Morris explained that capsaicin, the compound that makes spicy foods hot, also offers a wide range of health benefits — including for relieving pain, boosting metabolism, lowering blood pressure and fighting heart disease and cancer. It even can induce a euphoria that Morris described as being similar to a “runner’s high.”
If the capsaicin in the spicy entrées created a mood of euphoria, the dessert — a honey, lemon verbena, rhubarb and sour cherry dream cake — lifted that euphoria to a level bordering on the ecstatic. “You’re getting texture, temperature, sweet, bitter and salty all in one bite,” said one guest, who practically swooned upon tasting the delectable confection. “It’s the grand finale.”
In his concluding remarks, Board President Peter J. Allen, M.D., noted that the evening had tapped into a receptor that Morris had neglected to mention: “the fun receptor.”
“I loved it, it was so fun,” agreed Star Point Society member Allan Kleinman. “So many things to taste.”
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The next Taste of Science dinner will be held Friday, Aug. 11, for members of the institution’s Star Point Society. The menu will be created by locally acclaimed chefs Michael and Fayelle Anderson of August Moon Catering in Bar Harbor, Maine. Members of the Star Point Society may register by calling 207-288-3147. To join the Star Point Society, please visit https://mdibl.org/support-us/star-point-society/.