Tea Tasting Language : Taste and Flavor

by Arina on September 13, 2010

in Tea Basics,Tea Language

Five basic tastes diagram

In Chinese language, the word 味 [wèi] can mean both “taste” and “smell”. Of all the five senses solicited in the tasting process, those two are most closely connected. So closely, that we often speak of flavor, which is the combination of taste and aromas. Guess how you could say “flavor” in Chinese? 味 of course !

If the number of different aromas is virtually unlimited, the number of basic tastes is strictly finite. In the West  four basic tastes have been traditionally recognized: bitter, sweet, sour and salty.

Four Basic Tastes

Tea is inherently bitter, due to the presence of theine and polyphenols. But the degree of bitterness can hugely vary depending on how you brew your tea. As a rule of thumb, the less time the leaves stay in contact with hot water, the less bitter your tea will be. And if you cold brew your tea (certainly, a non-orthodox way of doing, but I tried this in summer), the resulting drink will have almost no bitterness. Saying that bitter taste can be pleasant sounds as oxymoron. But we can actually learn to appreciate it, as we do for coffee or dark chocolate.

A light sour taste can sometimes be present in teas as well, even if you do not add the lemon, as Russians often do. Some black tea varieties may have a slightly sour taste.

Some teas are also naturally slightly sweet, especially Pu Er. In general, Chinese do not sweeten their teas. If they do, they use rock sugar for the mixtures of tea leaves and dried fruits, flowers and berries, like different ba bao cha (eight treasures tea).

Do not expect to encounter a salty taste in tea. People in Tibet and Inner Mongolia like to add salt to their tea, along with butter or milk. The combination sounds quite strange, but I tasted those savory teas and they are interesting and not unpleasant.

Five Tastes as Five Elements

In the traditional Chinese cuisine there are not four, but five different tastes. To sweet, sour, salty and bitter adds the pungent taste. Foods with pungent qualities are mainly herbs and spices, but some root vegetables can be pungent as well (e.g. daikon or pumpkin). I think in the Western culture we have not considered pungency as a basic taste, because of the rather limited use of spices in our cuisines and because pungency is not a uniform quality. Some pungent foods like chilli or cinnamon can have warming effect, others like mint, fennel or star anis – cooling effect. Sichuan peppercorns will numb your palate, and garlic will be just very stimulating, without having any “thermal” effects.

What is particularly interesting about the five basic tastes  recognised by Chinese cuisine and traditional dietary therapy is how they fit into the Five Elements concept key to Taoist thinking and applied universally in many disciplines from feng shui to the traditional Chinese medicine. On a very high level, each basic taste corresponds to one of the Five Elements and through them linked to five pairs of organs. Sour taste corresponds to Wood element and to liver and gall-bladder, bitter – to Fire, heart and small intestine, sweet – to Earth element, spleen and stomach, pungent – to Metal, lungs and large intestine, and finally salty – to Water element, kidneys and bladder. In any given meal all five tastes have to be present and balanced to help our body to thrive.

Five Elements are connected together through the cycles of promotion and consumption (solid lines on the image above), and the cycle of control (dotted lines). According to promotion and consumption cycles, a cup of strong bitter tea would  call for something sweet, and an excess of sweet can mask bitter (True for sweetened tea, but also for chocolate). If we look at the control cycle, we see that bitter taste is offset by salty – here is a clue to why salty Tibetan or Mongolian teas do not taste that bitter. For the same reason, a cup of bitter tea could go well with hot and spicy dishes to offset their pungent taste. I find the whole subject very exciting, but will not dwell on it further here. For a very accessible and practical introduction into Five Elements concept in Chinese cuisine, I recommend reading a book by Lorraine Clissold, “Why the Chinese Don’t Count Calories : 15 Secrets from a 3,000-Year-Old Food Culture”.

The Essence of Taste

Very often in the recent books on tea and cookbooks a reference is made to umami as the fifth basic taste. It has become sort of “fetish” word: elusive and enigmatic, but sounds nice and can give you the airs of an expert. Along with some other authors I would describe this taste as “savoriness“, or “deliciousness“. The closest word in Chinese would probably be [xiǎn] fresh, delicious. I do not know if it would be more appropriate to call umami a taste in its own right, or a taste enhancing quality. The chemical substance behind the taste enhancing properties is glutamic acid, extracted from seaweed by Japanese chemist Ikeda in 1907. Combined with sodium it gives monosodium glutamate, or MSG. Called 味精 [wèijīng], or the “essence of taste” in Chinese, this almost tasteless and odorless powder is heartily used in many restaurants to enhance the flavor of the dishes. MSG it is controversial due to potential negative side effects on health, but many manufacturers of the processed foods add MSG to their products (when it is not forbidden by law) to improve their taste. In her book on Sichuan cookery, Fuchsia Dunlop describes MSG as a “substitute for good ingredients and properly made stocks” and a “cheat that makes all the dishes taste similar”. The good news is that many natural ingredients also have taste-enhancing properties: seaweed, soy sauce or shiitake mushrooms. Not all of them belong to Asian cuisine, like, for example Parmesan cheese or cured ham. If you want further reading, a very good account of MSG is given in the book by Jen Lin-Liu “Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China”. Regarding the presence of umami in tea, in some of the tasting notes I’ve encountered the mentions of its presence in some green and white teas.

Taste: an Equation with Many Variables

What makes it really exciting with taste is its variable, evolving nature.  Many factors can affect it. I’ve already mentioned the way basic tastes are described to influence each other according to Five Elements concept.

Temperature can also affect the taste: higher temperatures enhance sweet and pungent tastes, but tone down saltiness and bitterness. A cup of black tea will taste less bitter just after brewing than when it has cooled down. It will also seem less sweet (in case you’ve sweetened it with sugar).

Taste can evolve with time and be dependant on our overall sensitivity. For example, our taste buds are much more sensitive to bitter taste than to sweet. So if a tea combines both flavors, we’ll feel bitterness first. That’s what happens when you drink ku ding cha – after the massive attack of overwhelming bitterness, you will be pleasantly surprised to see that it also has sweet taste, initially masked. Some teas can open up its flavors very quickly, others will have a long series of aftertastes, sometimes surprising. Exactly like wines.

In general, I think that when you describe you sensation when you taste something, you should not only try to name the tastes or aromas that you identify, but express all the associations that may come to your mind, should it be an allusion to a shape (eg rounded taste), volume or structure. Anything that helps to better describe what you feel, is precious.

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