The smell, shape and even sound of our food can transform the way our brain perceives its taste, which has big implications for everything from healthcare to haute cuisine
At Tresind, a restaurant near Dubai’s World Trade Centre that specialises in experimental reworkings of Indian cuisine, 28-year-old head chef Himanshu Saini is in charge of designing dishes that not only taste vivid and complex, but also appeal in interesting ways to diners’ other senses: sight, smell and touch. Even sounds are important: the sizzle of meat being seared on hot stones next to the table can add to the experience, too. “Along with the taste of the food, people want something special and extra,” Saini says. “When you’re eating a biryani, the best bit is when you first open the pot and the steam comes out.”
The chef has come up with scented mists that guests inhale as they place their orders, and spices that are ground in with a pestle in mortar a few feet from diners. Soup made from wild mushrooms has been presented as if it’s English tea, with truffles reduced to a power that looks like creamer, while whipped cream has been frozen with liquid nitrogen to give a specific texture to a deconstructed Black Forest gateau. The tasting menu is concluded with candy floss infused with the spicy leaf paan, a traditional Indian palate cleanser, presented on twigs.
Gastronomy that appeals to all five senses has become increasingly popular during the past decade, and chefs have known throughout history that smells, sounds and texture can transform the pleasure that we experience while eating. But recent research shows that taste is much more closely intertwined these other senses than previously thought. In 2004, the Oxford University neuroscience professor Charles Spence found that people eating Pringles perceived them as crispier (and thus fresher) in their mouths if they wore headphones that amplified the sound of the crunch.
He went on to find that coffee tastes nearly twice as intense when drunk from a white mug rather than a clear glass one, yoghurt will be more filling if it’s eaten from a heavier pot and toffee tastes more bitter if eaten while listening to low-pitched music.
These are the types of experiment you can try out at home, and the results are startling. I tried sipping tea while listening to tinkling xylophone music, and then again while listening to a harsh, buzzing drone: it’s a trick that Spence has played on drinkers at a beer festival in London. Without even knowing in advance which experience was meant to correlate to which sound, I found that the low-pitched sound made the tea taste more bitter, and the high-pitched sound sweeter. How could this possibly be happening?
What has becomes clear is that our brains are constantly sorting through much more information than it’s possible to be aware of, and stitching together a coherent “best guess” about what’s going on in the world, which is all we consciously experience. It’s why the tactile sensation of sandpapering wood feels smoother if you’re wearing earplugs, because your brain has never been confronted with the feeling of friction without a rasping noise before. Think about it too long, and you start feeling as though you’re living in a fictional Matrix invented by your own mind.
The broad strokes of this picture aren’t new. The mid-century adman Louis Cheskin coined the term “sensation transference” after finding that dyeing 7 Up yellow makes it taste more lemony.
But why the correlation between tinkling music and sweetness, or white mugs and strong coffee? Research indicates that there is a complicated grid of evolutionary, linguistic, cultural and habitual factors that lead certain sensations to bleed into each other. When an infant eats sweet food, his or her tongue moves upwards in the same way that it does when singing a high note, which scientists think may be relevant. Perhaps test subjects were more used to drinking weaker drinks in glass vessels, as they were used to feeling more sated after picking up and eating from a heavier container.
Louis Cheskin coined the term “sensation transference” after finding that dyeing 7 Up yellow makes it taste more lemony
Even if we don’t understand the precise mechanisms that create these effects, the way that our sense of taste is made up from a patchwork of textures and colours, as well as our tastebuds, has far-reaching implications for many fields, from haute cuisine to hospital nutrition. “There’s a big untapped opportunity for companies involved with creating products for elderly people,” Spence says. While the “silver palate” may not be as sensitive as a young person’s, special flatware and soundtracks could help older people relish their food again.
The findings could also help people struggling to refrain from overeating sweet, salty food. If we know that certain populations will find drinks in a red can sweeter than drinks in a white can, cheesecake sweeter when eaten from a round plate and popcorn saltier when it comes from blue container, then these additives can be reduced while preserving the taste experience. It’s not hard to imagine a health trend based on multi-sensory stimulation.
Airlines are also interested in this research, because it might be the key to creating better inflight menus. It was found in 2011 that overall background noise damps down the sweetness and saltiness of food – hence all those spicy tomato juices being ordered at 30,000 feet – but Spence thinks that umami flavours might be immune to this effect. If he proves this is true, expect more dishes that involve ingredients such as mushrooms, parmesan and cured meats next time you’re on a flight.
Packaging design is another area that has been transformed by the research of Spence and his peers. “More people are understanding that it’s important,” he says, “If you consume a third of food and beverages directly from the packaging, and if the packaging has an impact – its weight, its colour, its texture, its form – on the flavour, then it’s something you need to know about.”
Greater understanding of these principles can help companies avoid PR disasters, such as the special-edition white can of Coke that was withdrawn after customers complained that the drink inside had an unusual flavour, or the Cadbury Dairy Milk bar with curved segments that was criticised for tasting too sickly. Even the names of products can have effect the perceived taste, Spence has shown, with a study suggesting that subjects associate hard “k” sounds with bitterness. This may have contributed to the discontinuation of a Cadbury chocolate truffle, Koko.
The companies Spence has worked with to help them optimise the effects of sensation transference include Unilever, McDonald’s, and Heston Blumenthal’s three-Michelin starred British restaurant the Fat Duck, a pioneer in the realm of multisensory gastronomy. After Spence showed in a live demonstration that noises associated with the food diners were eating made the food taste more flavourful, Blumenthal created a soundtrack of seaside sounds to accompany a seafood dish. That was a decade ago; since then, many more innovative chefs around the world have been embarking on their own experiments with noises, shapes, scents and textures.
At NOX in Singapore, dishes are served in the dark so that visitors can pay better attention to texture, smell, sound and taste. A 10-seat restaurant called Ultraviolet in Shanghai is outfitted with 56 speakers, a wind turbine, visual projectors and special scents so that diners sampling its 20-course tasting menu can be immersed in an experience that appeals to all their senses. The primary focus for any chef, Tresind’s Himanshu Saini says, should of course be the taste of the food itself, and he has found himself faced with resistance from some diners who think that avant-garde presentation can be a distraction from that flavour. But in reality, as people are starting to realise, it’s not possible to separate the two.
“Taste is inexorably linked to all the other senses,” Heston Blumenthal said, “and to memory.” That gives chefs an extraordinary canvas to play with – and it means that, even for the rest of us, the possibilities for new gastronomic sensations are endless.