Basic Tastes

Let’s face it, there are 5 basic tastes: saltiness, bitterness, sweetness, sourness and umami. And all that we cook is for these 5 basic tastes. Now we all know that we taste all foods through our tongue, but did you know, that most of what we taste is also because of what we smell? Yes. It’s true. That’s why, we usually find food bland/tasteless when we have cold. 80% of what we taste is actually aroma

When working with a recipe, we usually use a single; or a combination of the five tastes to create an overall flavour. Before we talk about mixing these basic tastes, let’s take time to understand them.


Saltiness is a taste that we get from the presence of sodium ions. The overall taste is usually alkaline. Most of the salty flavour that we have in our food is from sodium chloride (common salt).


Bitterness is the most sensitive of all the basic tastes. It may be explained as a sharp, unpleasant or disagreeable taste in the food. Some good examples of bitterness is from foods and beverages such as coffee, unsweetened cocoa, bitter gourd, citrus peel, tonic water (quinine in the beverage) and beer (the hops in beer).


Sweetness is the most pleasureable of all tastes and is produced by the presence of sugars – often from sucrose and lactose. Across cuisines, sweetness is usually added through sugars (demerara, caster et al); or, through the use of fruits.


This is the taste that detects acidity. Some of the foods that where we get this taste from is from fruits such as grapes, lemons, orange, tamarind and sometimes lemon. Artificially, some of the candy that is available in the market produces this taste from citric acid in lozenges.


This is usually considered as the appetitive taste and came into prominence in 1908 through the development of Monosodium glutamate (MSG). This taste can be described as savoury or meaty and can be tasted in cheese and soya sauce; while it is found in other fermented and aged foods – besides tomatoes, beans, red meat and grains.


Other Tastes

The tongue can taste other flavours besides the above 5 basic tastes. These include pungency (spiciness or hotness – usually derived from chillies), coolness (through peppermint, menthol, spearmint), astringency (often described as tart or rough or harsh or dry – usually got from wine, or rhubarb, tea and bananas) and fattiness (from oils and butter) amongst others.

While one would wonder why spiciness is not considered as a basic taste, it is because spicy food doesn’t stimulate the basic taste sense in one’s tongue; but instead triggers the nerves that detect pain, thus causing the feeling you get when you eat spicy food.

Mixing Tastes

So how should we use these basic tastes?

We can use these tastes in isolation. We love salt on potato chips, unsweetened cocoa dusted over chocolate to prepare truffles, honey in milk, vinegar to zing us our curries and cheese to our sauces. Singularly, these tastes work well. Now imagine combining them to create a mix of flavours. We then have dishes like Sweet & Sour Pork, Salted Popcorn with Caramel, Tomato Soup with Grilled Cheese Sandwich; and Sourdough Bread with Wine.

I remember, when I was in Primary School, I was taught that colours can be complemented. So, we began to pair red-orange, orange-yellow, black-white, cream-brown and other such combinations. As I grew, I learnt that multiple colours can be combined together – like when designing a room. Therefore, colour combinations like black-white-red, yellow-orange-maroon, cream-brown-gold and the likes were appreciable. Similarly, I mix flavours. I experiment. I usually add a pinch of salt in my desserts – try it in gulab jamuns. I add a pinch of sugar in my savouries – when making curries or roasting meats! I suggest you get your basics right, and then experiment. After all, the Thais use almost all 5 basic flavours in each of their dishes!

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