Miscellany 7: Let's talk about food

Miscellany 7: Let's talk about food

Continuing our exploration of the origins, conundrums and variety of language.

Compared to our ancestors, most of us with reliable access to supermarkets expend relatively little energy growing our food. But we still spend plenty of time thinking about, acquiring, preparing and consuming it.

We also spend a good deal of time talking about the food we eat. After all, food and drink are some of the greatest pleasures in life and the basis for many of our social interactions.

For all this discussion, though, most of us have a surprisingly limited vocabulary when it comes to food. We express our likes and dislikes readily enough, but often stop short of actually describing our experience with a dish.

But how might we better introduce a food to others or show our appreciation for a meal than by simply saying “it’s really good”?

For starters, there are food descriptors whose meanings are self-evident, like “briney”, “herbaceous”, “vegetal” and “citric”. Given that these generally describe seafood, herbs, vegetables and citrus respectively, they’re not exactly mind blowing, but drawing attention to these features of a dish will add a little spice to your food vocab.

If you want to level up a bit, try “nutty”, which can describe toasted dairy products in addition to nuts. “Earthy” usually refers to foods tasting of soil – or more precisely, geosmin, a protein produced by various bacteria and fungi that humans crave – including beetroot, asparagus and freshwater trout.

Since we’re getting scientific, let’s try “tannic”, which will be familiar to sommeliers (who, admittedly, are ahead of the rest of us when it comes to trying to describe tastes). It literally means “tasting of tannins”, or the biomolecules that account for the astringent flavour in red wine and over-steeped tea.

If you really want to up your culinary lexicon, though, you’ll have to adopt some more conceptual descriptors. To start simple, words like “tangy”, the weaker cousin of “sour”, should be familiar enough. And “sharp” is similar, but specific to cheese.

“Unctuous”, “savoury” and “umami” are a group of related terms that all describe the fifth basic flavour, which comes from our taste receptors’ response to glutamates and nucleotides. It is found in broths, cooked meats and fermented foods like soy sauce.

“Funky” can mean “not for me” but can also be used positively for things like fish sauce, while “cloying”, “acrid” and “rancid” are more overtly negative. But if you don’t want to offend – or want to do so more subtly – you could just call the dish “challenging”.

Keeping your wording as straightforward as possible is a worthy goal in many settings, but there are times when it’s worth using the full range of available expression to spice up your speech – and delight your dinner companions.

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