Smell and taste are frequently stimulated together. The smell of food, for instance, greatly enhances its flavor. However, taste is a distinct sense from smell and should not be overlooked when describing your characters’ sensory perceptions. There are five well recognized types of taste receptors. These sensations are categorized as sweet, bitter, salty, sour and savory (often referred to with the Japanese word Umami). While exploring taste, I recommend finding ways to experience all five even though some of the taste sensations are not completely pleasant.
Exercise One: Gather things to taste that will activate all of the areas of your tongue. Also try some different textures. I tried soy sauce (Savory/Umami), lemon juice (sour), Agave nectar (sweet), Tonic water (bitter), pita chips (salty and crunchy) and plain Greek yoghurt for a smooth texture. Spend time moving each taste around your mouth and write down everything that comes to mind.
My example (Remember these are just notes. Forgive the incomplete sentences.):
Lemon Juice – More of a restrictive feeling on the tongue than a flavor, first on the right side then strongly at the back of the tongue. It stays in my throat and then I can feel it at the back of my sinuses.
Liquid Aminos (like soy sauce) – I feel it in the center top of my tongue. It is salty, but not from salt. It tastes brown like bear fur or the soft bark of a rotting tree.
Pita chips – do not taste as salty as the Liquid Aminos. The crunch is satisfying, makes me feel contented. My teeth feel sturdy and powerful. The bread flavor lingers as the crumbs liquefy and my tongue removes the leftovers from the bowls of my molars.
Tonic Water – Leaves a sour aftertaste at the top back of my mouth. All it is is sour aftertaste. It grabs the front of my tongue, but the bubbles carry it quickly to the top of my mouth where it lingers.
Agave Nectar – has a bit of a thick brown Molasses flavor though it is supposed to be the light neutral flavor. I don’t like it. I stick out my tongue and say “Eh.”
Greek yoghurt – It is cool on the tip and top of my tongue. Sour in aftertaste. A little vanilla or sweet at first. I feel the tang right at the top center of my mouth. I enjoy moving the thick silky texture around my mouth which I find odd because I hate the texture of pudding and it is very similar.
I was surprised that my notes were mostly physical descriptions of the feelings in my mouth. I did come up with a little bit of imagery that may be useful in my writing. I think I’ll try this exercise again sometime in the future with fruits and vegetables and also with a meal.
Exercise Two: With your new insights and sensory awareness from exercise one, take your main character out to dinner. What is his or her favorite food or restaurant? Why? What foods, smells and textures does he or she hate? Why? Once you get to your table start taking notes. How does your character make menu choices? Did s/he know what to get before arrival, or are menu decisions difficult? When the food arrives try to perceive everything about the meal as your character. Remember that the smell, texture and taste are all part of the taste sensation. Take notes of everything that comes to mind. If you invite people to join you and your protagonist on your taste adventure, make sure to clue them in to what you’re doing. You wouldn’t want them to think you were being rude to them, taking notes about them, or just plain crazy.