grub + travels + perspectives

The Hierarchy of Taste

Do you ever wonder why some people go to great lengths just to try new food? Why there's some people not hesitant to jump on the bandwagon just to feed their curiosity for a gastronomic fad? And why some dishes look so simple but tastes so complex to some? Here's something to read and ponder on. I found this article (well, a part of the actual article) on Pepper.ph's website, written by Dwight Co, for their (almost) forgotten first year anniversary.

Get a guy who only eats only garlic rice and tapa everyday, buy him dinner from a 3-star Michelin restaurant, and he probably wouldn’t think twice about spitting out that hand-plucked, 400-year old Icelandic clam on his plate. He’ll argue that it’s no different from the much cheaper clams he’s used to eating. Now give that same piece of shellfish to someone like Ferran Adria and he’d get a boner just by smelling it.

Most people think that you only need great chefs to experience great food. That’s not true; chefs are just half of the story. Great food comes from great cooks and great tongues.

“That’s blasphemy!” you say, “Taste is relative!” Well you’re right, and wrong.

Taste is only relative in the same way that blue is as good as pink—there’s no objectively “better” color. Beyond that, taste can be developed, expanded, and practiced.

Here’s how taste evolves via the Hierarchy of Taste:

Image from Pepper.ph
Stage 1: Survival

People stuck in the Survival stage literally only “eat to live.” They don’t care if what they’re eating is good or bad. They only care about food if it gives them enough fuel to power their bodies. They strictly stick to a safe zone of food choices. They care more about value for money than taste. They wouldn’t bother reading a food blog.

These are the folks you’d often hear say, “I like buffets because they’re filling. I don’t really care where we eat. Hindi sulit.”

Stage 2: Exploration

Explorers eat for pleasure. These people eat because food makes them happy. They’re constantly looking for new experiences and seek special places for special occasions. They can detect nuanced culinary details, but they’re not anal about it. What’s important is whether or not what they’re eating makes them happy. What matters to them most is how food tastes and how much pleasure it gives them.

People whose taste buds lean towards the explorer stage are the ones who often say things like, “This place is expensive, but it’s worth it. Where’s the best pasta in town? This steak is a bit too well-done for me.”

Stage 3: Enlightenment

Most people never reach taste Enlightenment. People at this stage eat neither for value nor solely for taste, but for meaning. They care about details the rest of us wouldn’t even bother with, such as where the food is sourced or how the animals were treated. They care about the passion and energy of the chef who cooks the food. They care about technique, complexity, and presentation. They approach a dish not for its taste, but in anticipation of a revelatory experience, a source of inspiration and insight.

You could pick a piece of leek in a farm and serve it to them unseasoned and raw, and they can find joy in that. Their culinary senses are heightened to a level most of us will never understand. These are the people who push the culinary world forward.

“Great food is stripped down to its core,” these people would say, “You must respect food” or “A chef is an artist.”

While people at the pinnacle of our taste triangle may find themselves slipping down a step or two, depending on their mood, they will always have the ability to return to the top whenever they want. On the other hand, us folks in the first and second stages wouldn’t have the ability to force ourselves to reach the third stage because we lack the experience and fire to reach it.

So, at which stage do you think you are right now?