Do you really have good taste? Taste is perhaps one of the most subjective things on the planet. It is contingent not only on some very specific biological differences between us but also upon social and cultural differences that are learned very early on in life. While peoples tastes change as they age and you can learn to like foods that you may have previously disliked, a lot of it is built in, a defense mechanism against consuming things that could be potentially dangerous to eat.
First, it is useful to understand a thing or two about the basics of taste. Our tongues are lined with little taste receptors called taste buds which are designed to detect the flavors of sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Additionally, we have the capacity to detect a fifth taste that comes from the Japanese called umami. Umami is most characteristically typified by the flavor of bacon or other meats. It doesn’t quite fall under any of the other four tastes but is more nuanced and perhaps difficult to define. Taste can further be quantified by the terms “supertaster” or “nontaster”. Typically supertasters have more taste buds on their tongues and can be hypersensitive to flavors, almost verging upon an aversion to them, particularly things like bitter and spicy. There are fewer supertasters than nontasters. Nontaster sounds like a bad thing but it doesn’t really mean you cannot taste anything. It simply refers to those who do not have hyper-sensitive tastes and can tolerate a wide spectrum of flavors without discomfort. Many cultures that spice their foods heavily tend to be typified by nontasters.
What does that mean for taste? Not a whole lot. Again, these are general definitions, but by and large, your specific taste has more to do with where you grew up than the number of taste buds you have on your tongue. It’s the old argument of nature versus nurture. In this case, both are important but I would argue nurture is more important. As children we grow up eating the foods our parents give us. If you live in say Japan, this would include things like rice, seafood and seaweed. If you live in Papua New Guinea this may involve elephant grubs or other insects. In the U.S. this may mean chicken nuggets and french fries. These become your “norm” or your “comfort foods.” They are the things that make you feel safe because you recognize them and because your taste buds become accustomed to them. As adults we often have nostalgic memories of specific meals or dishes we grew up with. The foods themselves may not be the best things we ever ate, but rather the things we have very vivid sense memories around.
In a world where borders are quickly being erased and foods seem to travel farther and quicker, our tastes are broadening. Statistically speaking, we tend to eat out more frequently than we cook at home, and our options in terms of the foods we have available to us are increasing. Many people regularly have access to foods from far across the globe, particularly in larger metropolitan areas. This has enabled us to increase our palattes and therefore our tastes. Does it make our taste better?? No. It just makes us capable of enjoying more variety and potentially to broaden the availability of foods that can be healthy for us to consume.
Good taste or bad taste is strictly subjective and that’s why no one gourmet food or restaurant will appeal to everyone. I do, however, believe that there is an opportunity for us all to expand our horizons as far as taste is concerned and with it our cultural understanding of people from other places.