About Our Delicious Flavours

Talking about taste and flavours is tricky business. It’s also very individual and subjective. Each person’s ability to distinguish flavour (and taste) is different and some people are more sensitive than others. Depending on how narrowly we define “taste”, there are between five to several dozens sensations that we can experience independently on our tongues*. Therefore it’s helpful to understand the important distinction between taste and flavour, which is “science” on its own. Our gustatory system is not just a bunch of taste receptors on the tongue, but rather a very intricate web of connections between all our senses.

As I hinted before, according to Wikipedia our human taste receptors can sense the five taste modalities: sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and savouriness (also known as savoury or umami). So far it’s simple. However, even a small child would tell you that it’s hardly enough to describe the broad variety of sensory experiences that eating and drinking triggers. Why? Because, what we experience when we eat and drink is not just a mixture of those 5 basic tastes. It’s about flavour, which is the perception of reality that comes together through all of the senses, particularly through taste, aroma (smell), and food textures (touch), but also environment we are in (sight) and people we dine with (social aspect). So here we have it, describing food is a science on its own and the words often to do justice to our culinary experiences.

Therefore forgive me (and correct me) if my description of certain dishes isn’t perfect or correct. I welcome your feedback or corrections.

For the sake of simplicity (and for the practical reasons) I categorise dishes and drink on this website into these following “taste” categories with an arbitrary addition of some flavours. This is not to be a scientific description of dishes, but rather a result of my practical approach to guiding you through the very diverse world of Vietnamese cuisine.

Our Delicious Tastes

Taste sensations are categorized into five basic elements of flavour — salt, sweet, sour, bitter, and savoury (umami).

Sweet – Sweet flavours come from things like candy and fruits.

Bitter – Bitter flavours come from many vegetables and unsweetened chocolate. Not to be confused with sour!

Sour – Sour flavours are contained in anything with acid, such as citrus fruits or vinegar.
Synonymous to: tart, acid

Salty – Salty flavours obviously come from anything with salt, such as chips or nuts.

Savoury (Umami) – Meaty flavours come from anything with glutamates (MSG) such as soy sauce, cheese, and meat.
Synonymous to: Meaty

Our Delicious Flavours

Flavor is further defined by secondary sensations (flavour nuances) including pungent, spicy or piquant, astringent, metallic, cool, fatty, or even neutral (think of water) that are not recognized as true tastes but are used as cultural descriptors.

Neutral – By “neutral” taste we mean food that has no strong taste. It appears to be tasteless. For example: plain boiled rice or plain bread.

Cool – Foods that chemically trigger a sensation that is similar to cool sensations. This “fresh” or “minty” cool sensation can be tasted in peppermint, spearmint and is triggered by substances such as menthol, anethol, ethanol, and camphor (source: wikipedia).

Cool flavours come from certain chemicals such as in mint and menthol.

Spicy (Pungent) – Foods that chemically trigger a sensation that is similar to hot sensations. Hot flavours come from other chemicals such as in chilli peppers (capsaicin)and black peppers.
Synonymous to: hot, chilli, piquant

Astringent – Foods that cause an astringent or puckering sensation in the mouth such as unripe fruits, strong tea (tannins), red wine, rhubarb, legumes, raw fruits and vegetables and some herbs.
Synonymous to: “dry”, “rough”, “harsh” (especially for wine), “tart” (normally referring to sourness), “rubbery”, “hard” or “styptic”.

Less exact terms for the astringent sensation are “dry”, “rough”, “harsh” (especially for wine), “tart” (normally referring to sourness), “rubbery”, “hard” or “styptic”.

Examples: legumes, raw fruits and vegetables, herbs
Some foods, such as unripe fruits, contain tannins or calcium oxalate

Fatty – Recent research hints existence of a possible lipid taste receptor. There is a debate over whether we can truly taste fats. If not as a unique taste, it certainly exists as flavour and it’s very popular one.

Metallic (iron, zinc, aluminium, copper etc) – A metallic taste may be caused by food and drink, certain medicines or amalgam dental fillings. It is generally considered an off flavor when present in food and drink.


* “Taste and Smell: An Update” by Thomas Hummel.