The Influence of Culture on a Palate’s Vocabulary


I often will be tasting coffees and blurt out what I taste or smell only to find out my perceived adjective seems not to match anybody elses descriptors. Our figurative palate (specifically our sense of smell) is deeply tied to our memory and has a great capacity for recall. The way it retrieves a memory is often through association. Say you are blinfolded and are given a small parcel of food to chew, you do so and are immediatley able to discern that what you are chewing is a piece of PB&J sandwich. The creamy texture of the peanut butter, the dry soft bread, and the moist and flavorful jam: it is very clear. However this recall is only possible if you have eaten PB&J sammies before. This was a tremendous realization for me, almost as if to be able to detect flavor notes in things (coffee in my case) I have to have consumed said item  previously and enough times to have created a clear memory of that smell or sensation.

It is easy to see how your upbringing, both geographically and culturally speaking, has a potentially massive influence on this. Your ability to name a certain aroma is strongly tied to your palates database, or the collection of memories it has created of everything youve ever sniffed. Someone who is constantly exposed to tamarind, say in Thailand, may taste it in every coffee while someone in the USA will just register a new smell not really being able to identify it and possibly associating that note with a different food or item.

When you dream everything you “see” is something your eyes have previously seen. You can only create “new” things in dreams by combining elements of previous seen things. Your palate works in a similar way except it is a bit more complex, for even though it may not be able to name a certain aroma it can still perceive it. Therefore if you have never eaten chocolate, and you are tasting coffee with people who have, and they say they are tasting chocoalte, it is very possible that when you do taste chcolate you may say it tastes like coffee!

What I have found to be especially interesting in tasting coffee is that there seems to be a learned vocabulary or rather a certain agreement on terms. For example, coffee that is old or past-crop is defined as “baggy,” when to me the aroma resembles a type of fresh wood. But declaring said taint as woody would be misleading to other tasters as woody is a characteristic that means a different thing in tasting coffee, like cedar notes in Sumatran coffees. Situations like this have forced me to create new associations because often I smell or taste things that even if I communicate them and are perceived by other tasters, they are not perceived as the association that I have in mind. I think the clearest example of this would be Caramel: an aroma often found in coffee. However, as a cook, caramel can be very different depending on the temperature at which it was removed from heat. I often associate what other tasters smell as caramel with milk because for me light caramels have a milky note to them. I would only define a coffee as having the note of “caramel” if I smelled what I associate with darker caramels.

This seems limiting to me. For instead of describing things as I perceive them I find myself translating my “palates vocabulary” in order to communicate. It seems to me that if we are looking to better differentiate coffees we should be more open to different descriptors. I can see how this can be problematic as well but it is almost as if we were restricting a coffees potential by limiting the amount of descriptors that can be used.

Tasting coffee has been a great way to bring awareness to tasting other things than coffee for me. I often now find myself really focusing on smelling at any point throughout the day and chewing food slower to see what other things I taste apart from what I expected to taste. You would be surprised at how complex tasting the simplest things can become if you do this often.

Happy tasting.

[image credit: http://freshcup.wordpress.com/cupping-coffee-a-beginners-guide/]

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