How do you describe a flavor to someone who has never tasted it before?
Most of us would probably first reach for an analogy: there's a reason "it tastes like chicken" is a cliché to describe things like alligator or rattlesnake or other "weird" meats. Almost everyone (in the US, at least) can be assumed to have eaten chicken; it's a cute way of downplaying the allure (or disgust) of the exotic. But this statement only works because we can't adequately explain what chicken tastes like. It, like most of the foods that we are familiar with, has become a cipher.
And really, what is a new flavor? Are there any really unprecedented flavors still out there?
As a case study, I offer this bag of Kasugai Mangosteen Gummy Candy, purchased for $3.59 at the Japanese bodega.
What is a mangosteen? I can tell you what it looks like if you've never seen one. It fits in the palm of your hand; it has a leathery purple peel capped by a crown of three or four tough green leaves; the fruit itself is segmented like an orange, milky-colored.
But what does it taste like?
The package offers few clues:
"The Mangosteen has the perfect balance of sweet and sour taste, known as the 'Queen of Fruit'. Enjoy its delicious flavor in Kasugai Mangosteen Gummy Candy."
R.W. Apple confronted the problem of describing the taste of the mangosteen when he wrote about it for the New York Times in 2003. Apple is an enthusiast, a lover, an avid apostle for mangosteen. His readers, however, must be presumed largely ignorant of the fruit, its flavor, and its reputation. At that point, mangosteens were forbidden fruit in the U.S. Native to Southeast Asia, the fruit was host to a pernicious type of fruit fly that the USDA wanted to keep away from American crops.
How does Apple confront the problem of describing the mangosteen's flavor? He writes: "I could tell you that the flavor reminds me of litchis, peaches and clementines, mingled in a single succulent mouthful, but words can no more describe how mangosteens taste than explain why I love my wife and children. Merely typing the name makes my mouth water. Whenever in my travels I spot a mound of those precious orbs in a marketplace, my heart pounds."
Does Apple tell us what a mangosteen tastes like? Instead of giving us a portrait of the flavor, he describes the effect it has on him and on other people; he provides us with the evidence of its value. A chef he knows bursts into tears at her first taste of mangosteen. Queen Victoria pledged to knight anyone who could bring her a mangosteen, ready to eat (no one was able to meet this challenge). Apple himself claims to prize a mangosteen above even a hot fudge sundae. Simply listing the things the mangosteen tastes like does not do justice to the experience of the fruit; what vouches for its deliciousness is its desirability, its valuation above all other fruits (of which it is the queen) and other delectable things.
When I read this article way back in 2003, the mangosteen seemed to me the most marvelous thing I could imagine. I wanted it as much as Rapunzel's mom wanted the cabbage from the witch's garden; I would trade a baby for one, no question. Robbie and I searched for a source online, coming across all kinds of other fascinating fruits, such as miracle berries - but no mangosteen. In Chinatown, we bought the mangosteen's co-regent, the spiky durian, "king of fruits," and one memorable evening, split it open and managed to eat only a few spoonfuls of its custardy flesh - which reeked of corpses, oniony sweat, and gasoline - before we threw it out with the trash.
Not long after, we did indeed find mangosteen, quite by chance. We were in Victoriaville, a small town in Quebec, for the annual festival of "musique actuelle;" the sweet smell of cow manure pervaded the landscape. Shopping for provisions at the chain supermarket in this unlikely locale, we discovered a pyramid of mangosteens displayed unassumingly besides bananas in bunches and fat green pears from Chile. We were with two American friends, who were singularly unimpressed by our discovery; they had traveled in Southeast Asia and dined on fresh mangosteen at outdoor markets. Robbie jumped up and down; I wept among the produce. We bought a half-dozen at a nearly extortionary price, and hurried to our rented house to tear open the purple hulls and taste the jewel-like white fruit inside.
But the flesh was livid grey and mushy, its flavor was sour and musty. There was nothing delicate about it. No litchis, no tangerines, no alpine strawberries. The thick rinds left a unpleasant maroon residue underneath my fingernails, the color of old blood.
We had mangosteen in Victoriaville, but we did not taste its flavor. This disappointing experience couldn't be the flavor of mangosteen, precisely because it was sour and soft and kind of gross. A mangosteen is by definition delicious, exceedingly delicious, the queen of fruits.
Subsequently, I noticed that mangosteen began to feature in nutritional supplements and in energy drinks. Along with goji berries or acai, it was touted as a new "superfood" with an antioxidant payload that would annihilate the toxins of industrial living. (It's interesting that potency, enhancement, comes from elsewhere - either "exotic" parts of the world, or the past ("traditional knowledge") - realms that have "escaped" modernity.)
But these supplements don't promise the flavor of mangosteen. What they offer is some other virtue of the fruit, another way of having it without tasting it.
More recently, now that mangosteen (imported from Puerto Rico, or from Southeast Asia irradiated against fruit fly pests) has been available for import, I've seen some sorry looking specimens at supermarkets, for sale at an astronomical price per pound. The fruit seems hardly worth it: their purple husks dented, their bonny green crowns dingy, a rind of white fuzz where the fruit was separated from the tree. Evidently much the worse for wear from their long voyage from the antipodes. I have not splurged on any of these specimens.
So, what do the Kasugai mangosteen gummies taste like? And do they taste like mangosteen?
In three days, I have consumed more than half the bag, but the more gummies I eat, the less specific the flavor becomes. The gummies are sweet. They are a little sour. They are monotonal. Maybe a bit like pineapple?
Am I learning what mangosteen tastes like, what is meant by mangosteen flavor, by eating them? Or will it change my experience of "real" mangosteen, when the day finally comes that I get to eat an perfect fruit, at the peak of its flavor? Will it be like Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein, where when he was told that it looked nothing like her, he replied, "Ah, but it will"? Will it just taste like Kasugai mangosteen gummy?