I was recently surprised to find out that the ‘map of the tongue” was a myth. Shortly thereafter I was even more surprised that I ever believed in it in the first place.
The ‘legend of the tongue’ map (which claimed our tongue was broken into different sections which sensed different groups of tastes) was greeted with skepticism for some time. Place a few pieces of salt in different places of your tongue and you’ll see that you can taste it anywhere. Do the same with sugar.
Humans can detect at least 5 known types of taste:
- Umami (the most recent detected type of taste which is described as Savory or as the taste of monosodium glutamate.
The study that many see as the ‘final nail’ in the debate around the taste map was published in 2006 (you can find the academic text here).
The ‘new’ understanding (many had used the salt and sugar debate for a long time to demonstrate the problem with the map) accepts that we may taste even more different tastes than the 5 above and that taste likely originates in receptors that are all around the tongue. There are still debates around the possibility of centralized groups which would lead to certain tastes being more sensitive in certain regions of the tongue (i.e. that our tongue has regions which specialize in certain tastes while still detecting the others) but the evidence is not conclusive.
It amazes me to think of how much we have to learn about taste – and about how many things in cooking rely on the myth of the taste map, including:
- The shape of different wine glasses and how they are designed to target areas of the mouth (based on the map) with certain tastes.
- The shape of different beer bottle styles for the same purpose.
- The idea that we are cooking with tastes that we haven’t isolated yet and could fundamentally change recipes and pairings.
- That many recipes don’t account of umami (being fairly new) – at least consciously. Chef David Kinch of Manresa (Los Gatos, CA) shared that his restaurant examines everything they cook to determine if they’ve added umami in the dish – if they haven’t, they adapt the recipe to include something. What are our recipes missing now? What will happen when we discover a 6th taste and understand how to incorporate it into our own cooking?
We’re at a dramatic time in human history. We are learning more about the human body, brain and cognitive abilities than ever before. We’re challenging old dogma and old beliefs. Our ability to share the knowledge is greater than ever before.
What will we learn that will change our cooking? What have you learned that challenged something you once believed to be true? What is left to figure out?
It amazes me that I took the tongue map so literally despite the obvious proof from my own experience. Now I just have to replace all my stemware (heh)…