Food & Culture

Adam Liaw goes off-camera with his first podcast: How Taste Changed the World

The seven-part series explores the ways in which sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami tastes have influenced humans. And it features big names like Dan Barber, Fuchsia Dunlop and Yotam Ottolenghi.

By Callum McDermott
Adam Liaw is a staple on our screens, but this week, the beloved cook and author is trying out a new medium – going audio-only with the release of his first podcast: How Taste Changed the World. It's a seven-part series, available on Audible, which delves into the history, science and stories behind the five big tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami.
"On television, you can see the food but you can't taste it," Liaw says. With audio, you can't see it and you can't taste it – so it poses a little bit of a challenge."
"But the thing with audio is that people actually listen to what you're saying, which is fabulous," he says. "Because everyone's on their phone when they watch TV these days right – you're getting maybe 25 percent of someone's attention with television, and I say this with all due respect to television."
As a podcast, How Taste Changed the World has the science geekery of a Michael Pollan deep-dive, the macro-history of a book like Sapiens, and the fascinating breakdowns of taste (that actually make you a better cook) of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. With Liaw's confident, steady hand at the tiller, it makes for an engaging listen that's clever enough to teach you a few new things, but never so mystifying that it could overwhelm you on a pre-caffeinated morning commute.
Each episode is structured around a set of conversations with figures from across the worlds of food, science, and history. Beloved chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi and Dan Barber are given the same air-time as renowned food scientists such as professors David Raubenheimer and Stephen J. Simpson. One moment you're dropped into a conversation Liaw's having with a winemaker about the underrated role of astringency in taste; the next you're with him at a restaurant having lunch with Fuchsia Dunlop, while she describes the role of spicy pungency in Chinese cuisine.
"We thought this might end up as a food podcast, or maybe a history podcast or science podcast," Liaw says. "We had a list of people we wanted to speak to, and we thought, why don't we just see how it shakes out?"
"But in the end it all ended up being the same thing: all the scientists talked about how much they loved food, and all the chefs wanted to talk about was science, and all the historians wanted to talk about everything."
"So you don't have to like history to like the podcast, you don't have to love food, and you don't have to love science – this podcast shows the common connection between those three aspects."
Fundamentally though, food lovers and passionate home cooks will get the most out of How Taste Changed the World. And Liaw wanted to ensure that listeners come away with practical new ways of thinking to bring into the kitchen.
"I've changed the way I cook since listening to the podcast," says Liaw. "Because it answered a lot of questions that I hadn't even thought to think about – like, why do we like red wine with steak? Or, why does a McDonalds meal come with Coca Cola? There are biological answers to this."
"I wanted this podcast to be more than just 'let me tell you some interesting stories about food and you can go away and have a good dinner party conversation about it – I actually cook better after making this podcast, and I hope listeners will as well."
How Taste Changed the World is available on Audible now. Adam Liaw is presenting at Vivid Sydney's Audible Live on Wednesday June 1.
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  • undefined: Callum McDermott