• In Adam Liaw's new podcast, we learn how salt is not only vital to our health, it was once a commodity that underpinned global economic systems for years. (Audible)Source: Audible
Adam Liaw explores the depths of taste in his brand-new Audible podcast and shares just how this series changed his understanding of the big five.
Yasmin Noone

11 May 2022 - 10:47 AM  UPDATED 17 May 2022 - 11:30 AM

If you had to rank all of the activities you need to achieve today to ensure there was a tomorrow, where would ‘eating tasty food’ and ‘having sex’ fall on your list?

According to a new seven-part podcast hosted by The Cook Up host and cookbook author, Adam Liaw, these two aspects of life – the greatest biological imperatives in human existence – rate top. After all, we each need food to reach tomorrow and sex to get to the next generation.

Although we eat to survive, not all of us understand why we eat or even why we like the meals that we do. And yet, there’s one biological factor that guides the food choices of all human beings – it’s our sense of taste.

“Taste is literally one step from the greatest biological imperative that we have,” Liaw tells SBS. “Taste is such a major driver for so many things.”

"When you understand taste and why you like certain foods, you also get to understand how you can satisfy that liking in healthier ways."

Liaw believes that to understand how to cook better, we must first comprehend how the five tastes – sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami – influence our preference for various flavours and eating habits.

“No one is putting food into your mouth. We all choose exactly what we eat and how. When you understand taste and why you like certain foods, you also get to understand how you can satisfy that liking in healthier ways.”

Big tastes, big global changes

Liaw’s quest to better understand the biological drivers of taste inspired him to create the new Audible podcast series, How Taste Changed the World.

During the audio documentary, Liaw investigates the science of our five tastes, learns how tastes have influenced global politics and history, and unravels how tastes can improve the future of food, our society and the planet.

We discover that our taste for salt - a commodity that once underpinned global economics for thousands of years - is vital to our biology. Listeners hear how the taste of sweetness that once guided our evolutionary forebears to consume energy-rich fruits is now used to sell us soft drinks. The podcast also delves into why our umami taste drives our desire to cook protein and the biological reasons why we like to drink red wine with steak, or tea with dumplings.

“There are some very big issues that we discuss in the podcast like - how did our preference for saltiness and sweetness change human civilisation? But essentially, the podcast comes down to the food on your dining table every night.

“The scientists interviewed explain that taste is not just a matter of personal preference. There is a biological reason why we enjoy eating certain foods with our friends and family. We learn how the food that is on your dining table gets there, why you like it and why you choose to cook the food you cook.”

From complicated food to simplicity

On a more personal level, Liaw’s newly acquired knowledge of taste has given him a better comprehension of the flavours that make his household tick – including the taste preferences of his children.

“Now I understand that [liking bitter flavours may be a learned behaviour]. So I'm never getting angry with my kids for not eating some bitter vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts again. That podcast has really changed my approach to parenting in that way.

Cook with Adam
Don't know what to have for dinner? Adam's got you covered.

“I’ve learned that the best way I can get my kids to eat certain kinds of vegetables is to eat these vegetables myself. They’ll see me enjoying them and then maybe one day, they’ll try them and they’ll like it.”

Understanding ‘taste’ has also changed Liaw’s world as a chef. "Now, I hardly eat any processed foods. I don't feel the urge to eat them either because, to be honest, I know I can make food from scratch that tastes better than processed foods. The reason I can do this is because I understand that cooking is actually extremely simple.”

“That improvement just comes from understanding how our sense of taste works, why taste is possible and that it’s actually more preferable to cook simply.”

If you think that Liaw’s 'easy cooking' claim comes down to his expert status and culinary experience, you’d be wrong. The simplicity he speaks of lives in a confidence ascertained from knowledge built on the ‘K.I.S.S’ [Keep It Simple Stupid] principle.

“When you realise that we only taste five things – sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami – cooking becomes very easy to understand. If you look at what is in your kitchen and think of the ingredients you have that address these five tastes, then you know the ingredients you should use to make your food taste good.”

For example, Liaw says, take a Bolognese sauce that doesn’t taste right. You can choose to balance flavours by adding salt, pepper for bitterness, sugar or an ingredient like a carrot for sweetness, a squeeze of lemon for sourness or beef stock for more umami. The same idea applies to all dishes. Once you know how five possible tastes group the ingredients in your kitchen, you'll think a little more simply about what you have to do to fix or balance out a taste issue. Then, you'll have yourself a cracking dish.

“These days, I cook more simply than I ever have in my life. It's not that I cook worse, or that I cook food that doesn't taste as good as before. In fact, I'm cooking more simply in less time. But the food I'm making now tastes better than it ever has.

“That improvement just comes from understanding how our sense of taste works, why taste is possible and that it’s actually more preferable to cook simply.”

Adam Liaw’s Audible Original podcast, How Taste Changed the World is available now and only on Audible. 


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