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A Story of Senses: Taste

Tea Serving, Marrakech, Morocco, 1988

"Seen by scanning electron microscope, our taste buds look as huge as volcanoes on Mars, while those of a shark are beautiful mounds of pastel-colored tissue paper—until we remember what they’re used for. In reality, taste buds are exceedingly small. Adults have about 10,000, grouped by theme (salt, sour, sweet, bitter), at various sites in the mouth. Inside each one, about fifty taste cells busily relay information to a neuron, which will alert the brain. Not much tasting happens in the center of the tongue, but there are also incidental taste buds on the palate, pharynx, and tonsils, which cling like bats to the damp, slimy limestone walls of a cave."

- "A Natural History of the Senses", Diane Ackerman

Perhaps a more fitting title for this article would be: "Taste and the Metaphysics of Eating & Drinking" since the sense of taste appears to be inseparable from those two acts. Even though we can probably taste other things, for example a surface, still, our taste buds are primarily touched by the things we eat and drink. There are very few story tellers and a few mirrors for a human like food - the food that is served on our plates every day can often carry within it years and years of history, of trade networks, of discovery of the new lands, of the ways the creativity of combining ingredients was born inside the simple corners of our homes. Many of our ancestors were not rich and we can imagine our grandmothers trying to make something pleasant out of very few ingredients that were available - and create many different combinations of the same simple ingredients. Food is not only eaten for fuel - all over the world, food is an art, and setting of the table, as well as eating is a ceremony with its own beginning, middle, and end parts. On a personal level - a lot of our values can be seen in our attitudes towards food. Do we give it importance or do we not? Do we allow indulgence or are we the type that loves to fast? Do we treat it as a fuel, or as an art, or sensual enjoyment? Being a vegan or being on a keto or primal diet is not just about the food, usually, the people who make a decision to follow a particular type of diet have a whole set of reasons, often rooted in their values and beliefs, to justify the decision. Our relationship with food can also tell of how our psyche relates to the archetypal Mother. Eating disorders, be they anorexia, bulimia, binging, or some other compulsive, ritualistic pattern that takes food as its central object, often points towards issues with body image, accepting embodiment, or even nourishment and gifts. The psychoanalysis of eating disorders is vast & nuanced, and is better left for another time. Despite the colourful ways we relate and see food, food, and taste with it, remain one of the greatest sensual pleasures for humans, and on my Journey, they have taught me a few things.


The Cycles

"I am the food, food, food, and I am the eater, eater, eater... from food are born living beings. Those who are on the Earth live only by food and become themselves food in the end. Because I am food and I eat the eater of food, I am elevated over this whole world, I am radiant as the sun."

- Taittiriya Upanishad

Food appears to belong to the element of earth - it is there to nourish and feed, to facilitate the growth and the very existence of organisms on earth. Everything that is alive eats, and everything that is eaten is in one way or another, dead. We, the children of Gaia, eat her other children - whether it is plucking a plant from its tree or soil, or killing an animal to put it on our plate. As the Upanishad above says - we are eaters, but at the end, we also become the eaten. Our bodies - whether they decompose under the soil or whether they are turned into ashes, become food for elements, insects, or perhaps, they become fertilizers of the soil, or its purifier. The cycle of birth and death, and of rebirth & resurrection becomes visible in our food - something has died to feed us and support our life, but that something also continues to live in us. Perhaps it lives in a different form, but eventually it becomes the part of the microcosm that is human.

In these tender cycles, one finds a consolation - and it is consolation in having been brought to awareness that death does not exist, rather that death, as scary as it is to many of us, is but a passage into a new life. In Mevlevi Sufi Tariqa, the new disciples would often participate in what is called "Matbah-i-Serif", or "The Holy Kitchen". The retreat period in the kitchen, called chille, would usually last for 1001 days. The reason for this was so that the new dervishes may be "cooked" into maturity before they can advance. The kitchen, and the food they prepare, serve, and eat, is like a womb - there a spiritual baby is fed, warmed & nourished before they are reborn into the next stage or step of their Journey. We can all pray that the next existence the dark womb takes us into is the existence where we, with endless awareness, are part of everything and everyone we ever loved, where we are mature and aged sages in wisdom, but also joyous, trusting and pure like babies. And where we are never separate again from Love.


Separation & Connection

There are many cuisines in the world, but there seem to be certain principles that are taken on by most - usually there is a choice or preference of one over the others.

There are cuisines like French for example, where the sauce is usually cooked and prepared separately from the main dish, and it is only added later. This way, each of the ingredients maintains its own flavour and the separation between them is very obvious and felt. There are cuisines like Balkan & Turkish cuisines that like to cook the dish in the water that has spice and vegetables in it, and then use the water that the food has cooked in as a sauce. The water the food cooked in, as it cooks, contains essence of each of the ingredients that were added, and is in a way, the soul of the dish. Still, for example, the pepper dolma is separate from the sauce even though it cooked in it and even if it is served with it. The separation is there but the water contains the soul of the dish. The natural tastes are each allowed to express themselves fully. And there are cuisines like Persian, some Indian dishes, that love to add ingredients together and let them all merge into each other. In Iran, food is often brought to almost a mushy texture where all ingredients come together to create a completely new flavour. Although there are many types, Indian curries also can often carry this principle of unity & bringing many flavours together to create the "child of all flavours".

If we are aware and conscious, our taste buds can notice the separation or connection between flavours, and contemplating on it, we are shown different modes of being - the one of separation, the one of unity where each maintains own individual & unique essence, and one of absolute loss of all individuality.


The Grounding

"We are the food of Allah; on us does Allah feed. Just as Allah is the food for us, on Allah we feed." - "Meccan Revelations", Ibn Arabi When I spoke of scent, perfume & smell in the previous essay, I mentioned how a certain perfume or scent can easily trigger a creation of an image. Whether it takes one back to a past image, or whether we create images like: "a warm day at a beach", the smell awakens our imagination. Scent is a smoke, airy, and it naturally awakens the airy quality within us. Our imagination is that airy quality. Imagining, we are the pure mind, exploring endless possibilities & vastness of our minds. Air, while element of imagination, creativity, intellect & innovation, is also the element of anxiety and instability. It can also take us so deep in our abstractions that we become completely separate from the physical reality surrounding us. As a result, we become delusional. Delusions do not hold well & are threatened to be torn apart by the physical world, leading us potentially, to overidentification with them, mental agitation & mental health problems. On the other hand, the taste belongs to the element of earth. Instead of taking us out, it calls us inside of ourselves. Taking a piece of good chocolate in our mouth, or of a juicy fruit, if one closes their eyes, and focuses with awareness on the pleasurable sensations that were received, for a short moment, just a short instant, one can experience the loss of identification. For a moment, it ceases being sweet or sour or juicy, and it just a blissful moment. And you are there, as the awareness, to enjoy this pure experience of the pure bliss. Of course, after the moment is past, we return to our life, and our identity and selves, because that's what we ought to be in this life, yet if we are aware, we may return with the knowledge that we just had a taste of God.


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