Find something with complex flavors so you can do a little experiment. I have a small Snicker’s bar with its chocolate, salted peanuts and caramel. You can probably find something better - even a flavored hard candy will work well. I’ll wait ...
Take a bit of it and, while holding your breath, pinch your nose and place the morsel on your tongue. There is the sensation that something is on your tongue and you notice a taste or two. Chew it a bit. If you are careful to not breathe you’ll get one or more of the five tastes your tongue can sense - salt, sour, bitter, sweet and umami (often called savory).
I’m sensing a bit of salt and sweet with the bit of the Snickers bar. At some point you’ll need to breathe. Try only breathing through your mouth and, if you can, lift the your palate so air doesn’t travel from the back of your mouth to your nose. If you have good control you’ll continue to register the limited set of tastes.
Now start breathing normally allowing air from the back of your mouth to make it through your nose. It is as if the world suddenly changes from out of focus 2d black and white to vivid 3d color. The flavors come bursting through.
It turns out flavor is similar to color - we tend to think of them as aspects of the world that surrounds us, but in fact they are synthesized by our brains. Much of flavor comes from smell, but perhaps not the type of smell that first comes to mind.
Dogs are often cited as being wonderfully optimized for smell. They can put their noses close to the ground and the structure of their noses is beautifully constructed. Some beautiful work has been done examining the low speed aerodynamics of canine smelling.
Humans are usually seen as poor smellers - indeed smell is often seen as a relatively unimportant sense. But it turns out there are really two types of smelling. Orthonasal smell is what you think of when you think of smelling in dogs or people. Air laden with molecules that can stimulate smell receptors comes in through the nose and a signal is sent to the brain -- perfume, skunk, body odor burnt dinner and so on. Retronasal smell is from odor producing molecules that arise in the mouth and pass up into the nasal cavity with the air leaving through the nose.
It turns out retronasal smell is so different some researchers treat it as a different type of sense entirely. It also turns out, compared to other animals, we seem to be highly optimized for it.
When people learn that I have synesthesia they usually wish they could experience it. I’m not entirely certain that is a good idea and I often wonder what it would be like to have orthogonal vision and hearing. But I've come to the realization that all of us are synesthestic...
Your brain takes signals from retronasal smell and weaves them with those from taste to produce flavors in your brain. These can be enormously complex and can vary from person to person. They elevate cooking, wine making and the other wonderful things we do with food to art forms.
The retronasal smell-taste synesthesia1 is even more impressive as it combines with touch signals from the tongue to localize flavors on the tongue. Retronasal smell is a referred sensation.
Our bodies are impossibly cooler and more awesome that we can imagine.
Now I’m thinking about food. Over Thanksgiving I made about a half dozen dishes, some improvised, others modified variations of old standbys, that were excellent - the sort f thing to serve to guests. My cooking skills are modest, but these were good enough that I offer a few of them:
Roasted Green Beans with Nuts and Cranberries
2 pounds fresh green beans, stem ends trimmed
4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced lengthwise into quarters
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil - good quality (I like Frantoia)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon white sugar
1 teaspoon lemon zest (about one lemon's worth)
2 teaspoons lemon juice (about one lemon's worth). reserve another lemon for serving
1/2 cup dried cranberries (a 50-50 mixture of dried cranberries and dried cherries worked well too)
1/2 cup pecans (walnuts work well too .. you can toast them or leave them raw. I went with raw both times)
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with heavy duty aluminum foil.
2. Toss green beans with garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper and sugar directly on the prepared baking sheet. Roast the beans for 15 minutes, then stir with a spatula. Continue roasting until beans slightly browned and just starting to shrivel - about 10 minutes more. Add lemon zest, lemon juice, cranberries and walnuts and toss well. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt, pepper and more lemon juice.
Sweet Potato, Roasted Red Pepper and Quinoa Salad
cook 1 c quinoa and 2 c water with a bit of salt. I prefer quinoa from Bob's Red Mill
oven roast 1 cubed (1/2 to 3/4 inch) sweet potato 30 minutes at 350F broil for 3 minutes. crank the heat to broil for about two minutes at the end to push the Mallard reaction
roast 1 red pepper and dice (I did this on the grill with the pepper cut in eight sections and coated with olive oil. I went for a blistered skin with burning just starting and left the skin on)
toss into a large bowl and mix:
1 cubed peeled apple (a Cortland is a good choice)
2 ounces chopped pecans
2 - 3 chopped scallions
about 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/3 c high quality olive oil (I like Frantoia)
short 1/4 c white balsamic vinegar (Terre Bormane Aulente is great)
short 1/4 c balsamic vinegar (like Fini)
salt and pepper to taste
I have a serious weakness for mango lassis and, over the years, have tried to make them with mixed results. Recently I learned many Indian restaurants use a commercial canned mango pulp. Specifically Rellure was mentioned. I found some on Amazon and went to work with a recipe. An Indian grocery will probably also stock some. If you can score wonderful very ripe mangos, go for it, but this short cut is very easy and delicious.
This made the richest mango lassi I've had. The taste and mouth feel is that of something made with cream. You might try regular yogurt and perhaps low fat milk. I think you could simulate most restaurant drinks with 1% milk. It helps to chill the mango pulp and milk to below refrigerator temperatures - if they are already refrigerated, put them in the freezer for about ten minutes. Alternatively serve over ice.
9 ounces 2% plain Fage greek yogurt. (whole Fage would be wonderful overkill)
4.5 ounces whole milk
4.5 ounces mango pulp
about 4 tsp white sugar (or to taste)
some ground cardamom to taste - I probably used a tsp
blend for a minute or so
serve in a chilled glass and sprinkle with pistachios or sliced almonds.
1 Perhaps this is a bit different from normal definitions of synesthesia, but I think as a crossing of two distinct sensory inputs to produce a sensation normally associated with one of them. In any event this concept of flavor that we often interpret as taste is so common that we don't think of it as unusual. It is something to celebrate and we are probably much better at sorting out flavors that most (perhaps all) of the other animals.