The Elements of Taste

The Elements of Taste

'Everyone eats and drinks', said Confucius, 'but few can appreciate taste.' Since taste is a very personal thing (just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder), one's palate has to be developed both physically and intellectually. Few people in the West, however, are aware of that, for centuries, Chinese scholars discussed, analyzed and wrote down their thoughts on food and drink, and that some of them developed an extensive knowledge of the nature of food and the physiology of taste based on Taoist and Confucianism teachings.

No one would disagree that the essence of the art of cooking lies in the taste of the food. The Chinese believe the most important elements that help us to appreciate the taste are color, aroma, flavor and texture. All these elements have to be well balanced to form a harmonious whole and this is the central principle of culinary art.

Any wine connoisseur will immediately recognize the parallel with wine tasting. First you examine the color, then smell the bouquet, next you taste the flavor and, finally you judge its body and aftertaste. This may sound very elementary to the expert, but how many uneducated palates can truly appreciate the subtleties of all these elements when they are combined in one single dish?


  • Each ingredient has its own color, some items change their color when cooked, and others only show off their true color well when supplemented with different colored ingredients in contrast.


  • Aroma and flavor are very closely related to each other, and they both form an essential element in the taste experience. The agents a Chinese cook most often uses in order to bring out the true aroma of a certain ingredient are: spring onions (scallions), root ginger, garlic and wine  - the four essential flavors.


  • Each region has its own classification of flavors, but out of scores of subtle taste experiences, the Chinese have isolated five primary flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and piquant. They have also learned how to combine some of these flavors to create an entirely new flavor - sweet and sour, for instance, make an interesting pair, but not sweet and piquant nor sour and bitter.


  • This is another vital element in Chinese cooking. A dish should have one or several textures: tenderness, crispness, crunchiness, smoothness and softness. The selection of different texture in one single dish is as important as the blending of different flavors and the contrast of complementary colors.


Very few Chinese dishes consist of only one single ingredient; as it offers no contrast it therefore lacks harmony.  This is the basic Taoist philosophy of yin and yang. So, with few exceptions, all Chinese dishes consist of a main ingredient (be it pork, beef, chicken or fish) with one or several supplementary ingredients (usually vegetables) in order to give the dish the desired harmonious balance of color, aroma, flavor and texture.

For instance, if the main ingredient is pork, which is pale pink in color and tender in texture, one would use either celery (pale green and crunchy) or green peppers (dark green and crisp) as the supplementary ingredient; or one might choose mushrooms (Chinese mushrooms are much darker in color with a soft texture) or bamboo shoots (pale yellow and crunchy when fresh), or a combination of both to give the dish an extra dimension.

This principle of harmonious contrast is carried all the way through a meal. No Chinese would serve just one single dish on his table, however humble his circumstances might be. The order in which different dishes are served, either singly or in pairs (often in fours), is strictly governed by the same principles; avoid monotony and do not serve similar types of food one after another or together, but use contrasts to create a perfect harmony.

Back to Food Articles

Visitors Currently Online: 12