37, day nine.
Every one of us, no matter how lyrical and articulate we might be, stumbles over our words from time to time. If you had a nickel for every time you attempted to describe something and could not quite do it, you’d have to make sure to double bag them, because otherwise the bag would split and nickels would spill out all over the floor and who wants to deal with that? Often when this happens, we say “I don’t have the word for it,” or, “I can’t think of the word.” The thing is, English probably has more words in it than any non agglutinative language in the world. Add in idioms and descriptive phrases, and the illustrative power of the English language is immense.
English may have at least 147,000 words still in use, but the average person’s working vocabulary is much, much smaller. While it’s true that there are concepts that are legitimately difficult to describe, in English or in any language, there are many ideas and phenomenon with words or phrases that nail them down with precision. In many cases, the concepts described are difficult to even understand or recognize as extant, until you know the word for them. I plan to write a series of articles about these words, and also to try to pin down some of the concepts that, frustratingly, are difficult to discuss at all because they have no definition. This attempt is distinct from the articles all over the internet that describe little-known-words for well-understood phenomena. As great as the word “schadenfreude” is, you don’t need it to talk about taking pleasure from the pain of others. On the other hand, it is difficult to discuss or even understand the musical concept of dissonance; without knowing and fully grasping the word dissonance.
I will start with a field that I know well and which is also highly accessible: food. People who know food well have an extra vocabulary for discussing it. Many of the words are illustrative metaphors. I am not going to discuss these. For the most part their usage is obvious. When a food critic, an intellectually -minded chef, or a foodie describes something as “honeyed,” you don’t need a culinary lexicon to understand that they probably mean it is sweet, most likely thick on the tongue, and either literally or figuratively reminiscent of honey. The words that interest me are the ones that describe phenomenon, like dissonance, that are difficult to identify without their accompanying words. Food-people talk about food in much the same way music theorists discuss music, or computer network administrators describe networking. Unlike those two fields, food is both interesting to nearly everyone and much easier to learn. All of the phenomenon I am about to describe are things you have experienced yourself, even if you did not quite understand them. Once you learn them, you will be able to discuss food in a more granular way. Will it increase your appreciation of the food you eat? I don’t know. It very well might.
Every word on this list will have a description, and then one or more simple experiments you can do to help you understand them. These experiments can be done entirely inside your head, if you are good at imagining what food tastes and feels like. Or they can be done…experimentally.
Brightness and Sharpness
Brightness refers to acidity in food, but it differs from acidity in a specific way. Acidity is all about the level of sourness in a food. Lemon juice is highly acidic, as is any food with a lot of vinegar in it. Brightness is about the effect the acid has the food. A dish that has brightness tastes “awake.” The acid makes it interesting, and counters the effect of food being too heavy, too rich, or too deadening. Sometimes the word brightness refers to additions, such as fresh herbs, that have the same effect of “livening” the final product as acid but are not actually acidic.
Make a batch of homemade salsa. You can use any recipe you like, but this one is good. Make the recipe as directed, but leave out the lime juice. Taste the salsa. It is not bad, but the flavors taste dead and uninteresting. Then add the lime juice, and taste again. The flavors will “wake up,” and become more prominent and interesting. You have just added brightness.
Sharpness is similar to brightness, but more straightforward. It refers to the feeling of acid on the tongue. It is roughly equivalent to sourness, but sourness has negative associations. Unlike brightness, this can be either a positive or a negative.
Make a batch of lemonade. Here is a recipe. Only leave out half of the lemon juice. It will taste very sweet. Then add the rest of the lemon juice and stir. It will become significantly more sour, but also more pleasing. You have just added sharpness.
Mouthfeel refers to the texture of a food or liquid in the mouth. It is more specific than simply using the word &texture, as it includes concept such as moisture absorption and uniformity of chew that are descriptively finer than the common word texture. It also includes the feeling in your mouth right after you have swallowed the food. Mouthfeel can be seen as a subsection of the concept of texture that specifically refers to the entire feel of a food inside the mouth, which can include multiple textures. For example, part of the reason fried food tastes so good to many people, aside from flavor, is because of the mouthfeel that the fat contributes. You might not overtly notice the texture the fat imparts to the product, but the more subtle effect it has on the mouthfeel is pleasing.
Sip and then carefully consider a glass of Pinot Grigio, examining what the liquid does in your mouth. Then do the same with a glass of Cabernet. The Cabernet feels thicker, less watery, and it sucks the moisture out of the sides of your mouth due to the tannins. The two beverages have nearly the same texture if you stirred them with your finger, but distinctly different mouthfeel.
Put some ice cream in a bowl. The flavor does not matter, as long as it does not have nuts or chocolate pieces or anything in it. It should be smooth. Get a spoon and take a bite. Go ahead! It doesn’t matter if it’s not on your diet. You are learning something! Feel how the ice cream rests on your tongue and feels in your mouth. After your first bite, spend a minute and a half vigorously stirring the ice cream. You are working in some air, softening the ice cream and slightly raising the temperature. Take another bite. It is now smoother and creamier on the palate. You have changed the mouthfeel. For a more dramatic example, eat some ice cream and then as soon as you can eat some gelato.
Astringency and Tannin
Astringency is a very specific term that refers to the effect of tannin on the mouth. Tannin is a chemical found most notably in red wine and tea, and it is responsible for the puckering, moisture sucking sensation strong red wine and over-steeped black tea provides. The word astringent is also applied to bitterness in a more general sense. Foods containing high amounts of tannin are usually bitter, but the word astringent is sometimes used in situations where bitterness is not caused by tannin.
Brew a cup of black tea. Bring the water all the way to a boil, and let the tea steep for ten minutes. Take a sip, and feel the distinct and unmistakable feeling of the tannins as they suck the moisture out of your mouth. Try the same thing again, only do not let the water come to a full boil, and only steep the tea for a minute. The effect of the tannin will be much more subtle, but now that you have experienced it so strongly from the earlier step it will be obvious.
Flat is often used for foods that are almost flavorful. They taste bland, but their flavor suggests that they are missing something. Usually they are under-seasoned (meaning they do not have enough salt), lack brightness, or require an additional ingredient to bring the flavors together. Here is an example: You spent all day cooking tomato sauce. It comes off the stove, and you are disappointed that it tastes good but not great. You had a few tablespoons of chopped fresh basil, and suddenly the sauce sings. The sauce was flat.
Take a leaf of lettuce. Prepare a simple vinaigrette by whisking together 1 teaspoon of vinegar with one tablespoon of oil. Dip the lettuce in the vinaigrette and taste it. It will taste fine. Then add a pinch of salt to the vinaigrette. Dip another piece of lettuce, or the rest of the same one if it was really huge or you took a tiny bite because you don’t like lettuce. Taste again. The difference is highly noticeable. You will probably not taste the salt, but the dressed lettuce will taste more flavorful.
Umami and Savory
Umami is talked about everywhere these days, and for good reason. It is a highly relevant flavor, yet not a concept nature to Western food thought. When people discover it, it is a big deal. Umami is a Japanese word that is often translated as savory, although these days it is more common to use the Japanese word. Savory has too much baggage. It is the flavor that meat and cheese and mushrooms have that make them “meaty” and “satisfying” in a way that has nothing to do with the traditional four flavors of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Flavor enhancers such as soy sauce and fish sauce are high in umami.
Take a small piece of meat. It can be beef, chicken, turkey, whatever you have. The less seasoned the better. If you are preparing it from scratch, do not add any salt or spice. Take a bite. Now take a bite of a piece of cheese. That savory thing they both have that has nothing to do with saltiness (although it is enhanced by it), and that makes them both taste like “real food,” or “meal food,” that’s umami.
Take a bite of steamed rice. Now add soy sauce, and take another bite. The rice is saltier, but it also has a greater depth of flavor and complexity. You have added umami.
Unctuous literally means fatty, oily, or greasy. In a food context, it means oily in a good way. It is at the far end of the scale from the word “greasy,” which is just about always negative. Describing something as “tasting fatty” sounds unpleasant, hence the usefulness of the word unctuous. It can also be used to describe something with a similar texture that does not derive its mouthfeel from fat. A good eggs Benedict, with the smooth, rich hollandaise and poached egg, is unctuous. A moist butter cake is unctuous.
Take a can of beans. They can be chickpeas, black beans, great northerns, whatever you like. Puree them in a food processor or blender with a small amount of salt. Taste them. Take specific notice of the flavor and the texture. Add two tablespoons of olive oil, and puree again. Taste the result. The resultant proto-hummus will not taste oily. It will taste richer, and have a smoother and less chalky texture. You are experiencing unctuousness.
Pungency is a term that has a technical and a non technical meaning. In the non-technical sense, it refers to anything with a very strong flavor and/or aroma. In a technical sense, it refers to the spiciness specifically caused by capcaicin, the substance found in chile peppers. It is a useful term, because “hot” and “spicy” have other meanings related to food. Most of us have had a “hilarious” sitcom-style moment trying to figure out whether a dish someone served us was “like, hot like heat? Or hot like spicy?” Pungency is a useful word, because it eliminates this ambiguity.
Um…I’m not sure an experiment is really necessary with this one. Get a habanero pepper. Pop it in your mouth. Email me, and tell me how that went.
All of these are words that help describe the experience of eating food with more precision. They do not require specialized training or knowledge. All it takes for a deeper appreciation of the nuances of flavor and texture is to pay attention, and to have the contextual framework to understand and discuss with others what you experience.