Tastes in Korean

The Korean language has a lot of words for different tastes, some of them without exact equivalents in English.  It took quite some time to understand some of them, in fact (especially 고소하다).  Here’s a brief look at some Korean words used to describe taste.

First, there are the 4 basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter.  To that we can add spicy (I believe it’s included with the first four to make up the 5 basic tastes in Eastern cultures (hence 오미자 – 五味子, 5 taste berry), but I might be wrong.

Sweet – 달다, or 달콤하다

Sour – 시다, or 새콤하다

Spicy – 맵다, or 매콤하다

Bitter – 쓰다

Salty – 짜다

The ones ending in ~콤하다 mean “somewhat sweet”, etc.  They’re often combined: 새콤달콤하다 for sweet and sour, for example.  A bit more should be said about salty.  짜다 is often used to mean “too salty”; a more positive word for salty is 간간하다, “pleasantly salty” according to the dictionary.  They also have words for bland / not salty, again positive and negative: 싱겁다 is bland (as in English, negative), and 심심하다 is pleasantly unsalty (though 심심하다 usually is a negative word, boring, here it’s actually postitive).

But beyond the five basic words, I’ve run into quite a few other taste words, none more often than 고소하다.  Actually, there’s a Japanese word that means the same thing, and recently Western scientists have recognized it as one of the basic tastes along with the usual four.  It took me quite some time to understand this word; I was told that it was the taste of 참기름, or 깨…. that didn’t help too much, especially when I heard that 빵, 우유, 땅콩, and 두부 are all 고소하다 as well.  I just couldn’t understand what all these things had in common; finally I figured it was something similar to “nutty”, but the bread and milk threw me a bit, as I’d never considered them as nutty.  Anyways, I have a strong feel for the word now, and use it myself often even with new foods.

Another word is 구수하다.  This is of course the vowel-harmony complement of 고소하다, with yin vowels instead of yang vowels, so it has a similar meaning but perhaps with “darker” connotations.  All I know of 구수하다 is that it’s the taste of 된장.

Then there’s 떫다, which is astringent, like the taste of cranberries; Koreans consider 감 to have a 떫은 맛.  And then 시원한 맛, which is the taste of seafood broth, especially broth made from 조개, etc.  Am I forgetting anything else?

One thought on “Tastes in Korean

  1. native korean

    hi,I visit this blog by by chance.
    this blog is very interasting.
    (reading ‘the hobbit’ in korean?!!! wow)

    As you see, My english is not good.
    (I’m a native korean :) )
    but I think I have to leave someting like a tip about 고소하다

    for example

    씹으면 씹을수록 고소한 맛이 난다.
    (The more I chew, the more flavor I get.)

    As you see,
    when you chew polysaccharide foods in succession,
    polysaccharide is changed to monosaccharide and
    you can get something new flavor and taste is unlike first chewing.

    Strictly speaking,
    고소하다 is not one of taste.
    고소하다 is such process.

    You may guess it is stupid thing to do,
    But You have to try chew a cup of milk in 3 minutes.

    Bye. Catch you later!

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