The menu came, and with it, my usual dilemma of picking a dish to order. Being an ardent lover of food, I sometimes wish I could just order a bit of everything and taste it all – a predisposition that is, however, frowned upon by most. Resigned, I began to read each description of the voluminous menu carefully, trying to take in every detail, each little flavor. The catch however is this: even if one was theoretically capable of imagining tastes, one can never be too sure of the descriptions these restaurants put down in their menu – after all, they don’t say “Never trust the chef” in France for nothing. I found myself wishing there was some absolute database with strictly categorized data about each recipe, so that I could simply look up an appropriate dish by narrowing the criteria to certain ingredients, cooking method, etc. However, even that would be insufficient to select a good dish according to my liking.
Wouldn’t it be great to have your very own robotic taster? A machine that could be programmed with your personalized likes and dislikes. You could simply dab the ‘tongue’ of the robot with a small sample of the food, and it would immediately let you know whether or not you would like it or not. A LCD screen could display various emoticons (commonly used to show emotions in text messages) to indicate how much you would like the food. Or it could provide a comprehensive analysis of the food, giving details about probable ingredients used, cooking method, origin (whether the meal was a Mexican or Chinese recipe, for instance), and so on. Such a device would indeed be of enormous use to chefs and customers alike. Chefs could have a multitude of devices programmed to the tastes of random people, and then find out whether or not the food would appeal to their tastes. Customers could use it to maintain a database of dishes tried at each restaurant so far, and therefore remembering which ones they tried and didn’t like, so they don’t order them again.
Progress towards such a device has already started. In fact, an espresso taster has already been invented. See here to read an abstract for an article published in Analytical Chemistry entitled “When Machine Tastes Coffee: Instrumental Approach To Predict the Sensory Profile of Espresso Coffee”. Our sense of taste can be thought of as a quantifier of all ‘tastable’ chemicals. It is, of course, known that different regions on the tongue are sensitive to different tastes, which means that the taste buds in those regions are specialized. Our taste buds can detect the quantity of various chemicals in food, and this process can easily be replicated in a chemist’s lab, where we can take a sample of food and break it down into its constituent compounds, and detect even those that the tongue cannot. Which then begs the question: So What? Just having a list of long complicated chemical names for soy sauce will not reveal to the layman that it is soy sauce. As a response, a computer could utilize this large database, and detect any commonly used ingredients like ketchup, lemon juice, or even Worcestershire sauce, by comparing the list of found chemicals with an already existing database of all the chemicals in these ingredients.
However, that is still nowhere close to the concept of “tasting”. Tasting food is a different experience for each individual. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. That makes the concept of “universal tasting” not even considerable. However, one could program such a device with personalized likes and dislikes. This in itself is a conundrum. What defines ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’? For example, I may abhor creamed spinach, but I would love it stir-fried in oyster sauce. I hate pineapple chicken, but love Chicken Tikka, but I would hate even that if there was a large amount of salt in it. Such criteria are very hard to specify to a computer, which follows hard and fast rules. However, even if this problem is not easy to solve, coming up with a reasonable approximation looks like an interesting problem to tackle.
While you do that, I think I’ll have the Thai Chicken Cashews. One of my personal favorites at Zouk and highly recommended! Bon appétit!