Some people seem to have a very discernable palate, able to break apart the ingredients in a dish without reading the recipe. Watch any episode of “Top Chef” and you will see the judges recognize all the components in a dish simply by tasting it. Are they born with an innate knowledge of subtle flavors? Do they have a sixth sense?
You can be one of these people, too. There are several ways to upgrade your palate. First, and you have probably heard this, taste as much as you can. Taste, taste, taste. While you are cooking, taste as you go along. What is wrong (or right) at each point? Can you taste the oregano you just put in? Is it salty enough? Chefs adjust their seasonings as they go along; they do not wait until the dish is getting ready to plate. Some flavors intensify with cooking and some mellow. That is why it is just as important to taste as you cook as it is to check the oven before the timer goes off when you are baking. Each time may be different. There are varying factors every time you prepare something. Your spices may be old, the vegetables may be fresher that day, or it may be very humid. Try as many different foods as you can. Each time you travel, try some new foods from that area. This one is hard for me as I do not like the consistency of some food, such as eel and octopus. I actually like the taste, but the rubbery texture turns me off. (Perhaps I should say revolts me?) But at least I have tried them and know what they taste like. If you are against killing animals or certain types of animals, I do not expect you to give up your beliefs, but step out of your comfort zone as much as you can without having to flog yourself the next day. Although I used to like veal and lamb, I could not eat baby animals after I had children, so I know where you are coming from. Try all the new fruits offered in each area, the vegetables and the fish. Now try them prepared different ways. Just because something is “hot” right now in the food scene does not make it good. I do not like roasted asparagus. I know it is the thing, but I think asparagus is such a perfect vegetable — the thin ones, not the fat ones — that you ruin its integrity by roasting it. It is like putting a mass of baby's breath with a beautiful rose, unnecessary and overkill. While, it's popular to roast vegetables, and I love them roasted, not all vegetables should be roasted. Some are best left in their pure state, with a bit of lemon and a tad of butter.
Any professional trains for years to be the best at his or her job. You can train your palate to recognize certain flavors, just like an athlete. One way is to keep your palate pure before dining. By this I mean no mints, no soda, no sugar until the proper course for those types of things. These cloying tastes will throw your palate off and alert the wrong taste buds, coating the proper ones. Do you remember the old “palate cleanser” of the '80s? It was a sweet citrus sorbet between courses. Who on earth thought up the idea that a sweet iced concoction would cleanse one's palate? Better to have a large squirt of lemon or lime in cold (but not iced) water and have a swig of that. And here is another reason to stop smoking, as if you didn't have a zillion already. Smoking really messes up your sense of taste and smell. Your tongue gets coated (look at it), and your taste buds are off. That is one of the reasons smokers tend to be thinner than non-smokers. Food doesn't taste as good, so they do not eat as much. Also no coffee drinking before you try tasting! Coffee is great with certain foods, but we are trying to extend you palate. We are in training. Coffee after, with dessert, or with breakfast, but not during the actual team event!
Smell is an enormous aspect of taste. As we age, our sniffer ages, too. Many of the olfactory neurons do not work as well. By age 60, our sense of smell is already greatly diminished. But there is heartening news on this front. You can “exercise” your nose and reconnect many of the pathways. One way to do this is to smell things blindfolded. (Or just close your eyes if you don't want to get all dramatic, but the idea of a blindfold is just so cool.) I am talking about spices, fruit, vegetables, broths — simple, unadulterated things. It is important not to look at what you are smelling and let your brain and nerves do the work. Later, try tasting things without looking at them. Because we eat with our eyes first, the clues are there, telling your brain what you are eating. Think this sounds silly? Consider this: there are only 150 Master Sommeliers in the world. They spend years training their palate to discern between the subtlest of flavors, undernotes, top notes, grapes, regions, and all the minuscule details that make up a wine. They must go through rigorous testing to be awarded this title. Most of them fail the test. But the highly sensitive nose, taste buds and dedication of the finest pass. (Notice how they always stick their nose in the glass and inhale. They use only their nose, keeping their mouths shut. They are using all of the nerves in their highly trained nose before they take that first sip.) These masters train their noses first. It can be done for them and it can be done for you, even if the years are adding up.
The last thing I want to point out here is to really taste what you are eating. No watching TV or eating at the sink when you are in training. Roll it around on your tongue before you swallow if you are having problems. There is a German movie called “Mostly Martha” (on which the American film “No Reservations” was based). In several scenes, she is conversing with her shrink, tearing apart food she has eaten, ingredient by ingredient. In the final scene, she plays a trick on him where she tells him she can tell between two different types of sugar used in a dessert. It is a funny yet poignant film I recommend to all foodies. The point of this, though, is through her able but highly snobbish nose, she really tastes everything she eats. You can be like Martha with a bit of practice and dedication.