What Is In A Flavour?

Western Food | What is in a flavour? | Food For Thought

If you were to be asked how many flavours is there when it comes to cooking, well, the short answer is it depends on who you’re asking. Different cultures are accustomed to different flavour palates, so your answer may vary depending on whether the chef is classically trained in European cuisine, or if they were trained in Chinese cuisine.

European Food | What is in a flavour? | Food For Thought

What Are The Traditional Flavour Profiles?

According to traditional European cooking, there are 5 agreed flavours – sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (which most people understand as savoury). Each flavour add a different element and a counter element is usually used as a contrast.

Sweet Food | What is in a flavour? | Food For Thought


Sweetness is one of the most commonly used flavour enhancers, and is used to balance out the other four elements. Sweetness most commonly comes from either sugar itself, or any other components that may have a sweet disposition. This includes honey and plant syrups like maple, or agave. Sweetness may also be derived from compound flavour ingredients such as molasses (sweet-bitter), vinegar (sweet-salty), balsamic vinegar (sweet-umami), and ketchup (sweet-sour).

Sour Food | What is in a flavour? | Food For Thought


Sourness is a flavour that enhances flavours, and usually isn’t the primary ingredient in a dish, although some cultures have a predominant favouring towards sourness like Filipino cuisine, such as the adobo and sinigang. Sourness is usually derived from citrus fruits such as lemon, limes and tangerines. Sourness can also be derived from yoghurt, sour cream and tart ingredients such as vinegar, rice wine, cooking wines and tomato paste. Sourness is usually added less because of its strong effect. Sourness can also appear as compound flavours with ingredients such as tomato paste (sour-umami), pickles (sour-salty / sour-sweet), and grapefruits (sour-bitter). Sourness also occurs with many fermented foods.


Bitterness is another strong flavour enhancer, and is usually used in small amounts. It is part of our biological evolution to avoid bitterness and it is normally associated with poison. Ingredients that have a predominantly bitter taste include coffee, cocoa, grapefruit and bitter melon. Many vegetables also may have a bitter aftertaste such as broccoli, radicchio and many plants from the brassica family including kai lan, Brussels sprouts and kale.

Salty Food | What is in a flavour? | Food For Thought


Saltiness is a predominant flavour in cooking and is probably used more than you think and exists primarily with elements containing sodium. However, saltiness is seen as less dimensional than umami, which is more complex. The key importance about saltiness is that it enhances flavour at its basest level, but always need to be complimented with other flavours. Foods that naturally are salty include different salts, which taste different depending on their composition, therefore, white table salt has a stronger sodium content compared to Himalayan pink salt and Balinese black salt. Saltiness almost always exist with the umami profile. Salt can also be a great flavour enhancer, and is sometimes used to bring more flavours out of ingredients, such as when used in chocolate (salty-sweet-bitter) and fruits (preserved plum salt is used quite a lot with fruits in Asia).

Umami Food | What is in a flavour? | Food For Thought

Umami / Savouriness

Umami is the Japanese term for what most consider savoury flavours. The predominant chemical compound that gives umami its flavour is the compound monosodium glutamate, commonly known as MSG. The umami flavour occurs in foods that have this high concentration including granule MSG, but is also naturally occurring in soy sauce, fish sauce, miso paste, mushrooms, anchovies and tomato paste. This flavour is also prevalent is highly savoury foods such as cured meats, seaweed and cheese.

Chinese Food | What is in a flavour? | Food For Thought

What Are The Chinese Flavour Profiles?

Chinese cuisine’s approach to flavours are slightly different from the west, where the 5 main flavours are quite similar, but a special position is given to a commonly used flavour – spiciness. Although spiciness is quite common in Asian and South East Asian dishes, it is very common for many other cultures that have a historic use of chillies, including South American cuisine, African cuisine and Middle Eastern cuisines. However, Chinese cuisine is quite complex in its approach to flavour, with such a huge country having many regional preferences. For example, in Szechuan cuisine, they use spiciness that is described as “fresh-spiciness” with their use of chillies and Szechuan peppercorns, as compared to Xinjiang cuisine which is more of a prolonged heat, with heavy use of cumin.

Spicy Food | What is in a flavour? | Food For Thought


Spiciness is denoted by its ability to causes pungency when you eat it, and has a temperature effect on the eater, and that’s why you can mostly tell when something is spicy, your nose picks up on its aroma. Spiciness comes from the existence of capsaicin in ingredients. Words for spiciness used also include hotness, heat or piquant, with piquant denoting a milder sensation. Spiciness has its own complexity, and can bring out different flavours in dishes depending on how it’s used.

For example, in Szechuan cuisine, a lot of different types of chillies are used, which a person who’s not accustomed to the heat may not be able to taste. But for people who are, each dish has a different level of complexity that a non-local may not understand. A good way to balance spiciness out is to add sugar, as sugar can make food less spicy. Milk also has a similar effect because of its high protein compound. Spicy ingredients also can be enhanced with other flavours, such as with vegetables and fruits, especially in South East Asian cooking.

Peppery Food | What is in a flavour? | Food For Thought


Pepperiness is also a flavour that is similar to spiciness, but is less alive compared. Pepperiness gives a sharp aroma, is pungent and hot, but does not linger as long as spicy food. Pepperiness comes from the different types of peppercorns. Its flavour comes from the chemical piperine, which gives it its distinct taste and aroma. In culinary, pepper is almost always balanced with salt.

Other Foods | What is in a flavour? | Food For Thought 2

Are There Other Types of Flavours?

There are many other types of flavours and taste that can be experienced of which some are more accurately described as mouthfeels, or a combination of mouthfeels and taste, such as astringency and fattiness. Mouthfeels are more of a sensory experience with compounds to the sensations giving food more of a psudo-taste.

Tender | Textures and Temperatures Why It Makes Food Better | Food For Thought

Kokumi / Heartiness

Kokumi has been used to described dishes that have a certain heartiness to them. Kokumi is a taste proposed by the Ajinomoto company, the discoverers of umami, that Japanese eaters are able to discern, but is less understood by western counterparts. Until today, it has been hard to describe to western counterparts on what this ‘taste’ is like, and when asked more people would say the “heartiness” of a dish. To put it simply, it’s what makes a 12 hour roasted beef better tasting than one cooked for only an hour. This is also applied in Chinese traditional soups which can be boiled with herbs over a long period. You also see this in many hawker food across many cuisines that may use a perpetual stock.

Fatty Foods | What is in a flavour? | Food For Thought 2

Fattiness / Oleogustusness

Fattiness is the taste that is associated with food that has a oil component, such as olive oils and lard. Fattiness can also be experienced with food that contain milk that gives a creamy mouthfeel. This is present with foods we typically associate with rich foods such as creamy and cheesy pasta, avocados, foie gras and belly pork.

Astringent Food | What is in a flavour? | Food For Thought


Astringency is described as a flavour that is produces a dry mouthfeel. Ingredients that causes astringency include raw fruits, legumes as well as Chinese liquorice. A ripe fruit that maintains this would be pomegranates.

Metallic Food | What is in a flavour? | Food For Thought


Metallicness is described as flavours that produces a metallic flavour. This occurs with food that contain high metal content such as zinc. This is why oysters can taste metallic to some people. Metallicness can also be tasted in some medicine.

Chakly Foods | What is in a flavour? | Food For Thought


Chalkiness is described as flavours that produces a chalky mouthfeel. This can be senses with drinking water, depending on its mineral it is. This can also be sensed by some in milk, and also wine.

Chemical Manipulation | What is in a flavour? | Food For Thought

Chemical Manipulation

Chemical manipulation can also occur when the receptors of the tongue is tricked into think it has tasted a certain taste, but is the result of a change of chemicals on the tongue. This happens with food that do that like the miracle berry. When tasted, sour fruits become sweet, and sweetness can be intensified into bitterness.

Numbing Food | What is in a flavour? | Food For Thought


Numbness is described as a numbing mouthfeel, where the receptor of the tongue experiences a dampening experience. Numbness is prevalent in the Szechuan peppercorn, which gives food that its cooked with a mouth numbing feel, and is usually paired with chillies for balance of flavour.

Cool Foods | What is in a flavour? | Food For Thought 2


Coolness is described as a cooling mouthfeel, that causes an experience like we have had something cold, although at room temperature. This coolness is experienced naturally in mint, peppermint and camphor. Food made with these ingredients gives the taster a false sense of temperature.

Temperature | What is in a flavour? | Food For Thought

Temperature, Textures and Mouthfeels

Although not a taste in itself, temperature and textures play a vital role in cuisine which produces a certain sensation which we call mouthfeel. It is why soups are eaten hot and ice cream is eaten cold. Textures also give food more ‘flavour’ which is why the skin of fried chicken taste better than the skin of steamed chicken. A good example of both would be an ice cream cone, which is both cool and crispy.

Nicholas Ng

Nicholas Ng is a restaurant critic, travelogue and opinion columnist which is curated on Food For Thought. He has been a freelance writer for 10 years and has previously worked as a lawyer. He currently is the Principal Counsultant of A Thoughtfull Consultancy.


  1. This is such a good article Nick! So true, chinese flavours are different. 要甜酸苦辣!!

  2. Very insightful article, you really have a way with words. You described the food so simple and well.

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