What makes food so enjoyable? I have often wondered! Is it only about the tastebuds? As I began my journey for my quest and poked more and more into the matter, I concluded that the answer is not so simple if not entirely elusive. Our brains receive chemical and electrical signals from our sensory organs and then use a highly sophisticated mechanism of reward or aversion to different flavours. At the fundamental level, a sweet taste creates a reward while bitter food induces aversion. Well, we all learned it the hard way. During our childhood, we abhorred our mothers when they shoved neem-pata-bhaja (fried neem leaves) down our throats but eagerly waited for our fathers to come home on their paydays when they would ring the bell dangling a bar of milk chocolate in their hands.
What makes food so enjoyable- Emotion
“Food is an emotion”. To me, it is some out-of-this-world simple dish of ilish (Hilsa) used to be prepared by my mami (wife of my maternal uncle, not to be confused with mummy, the anglicized version of mother) that has been etched in my memory forever. Many a time even with a full belly I could not resist the urge to devour a few spoonfuls of bhat (steamed rice) with ilish machh (Hilsa can never really define Ilish if you know what I mean) when we used to frequent her place. To date, I have not come across a single soul who could unravel the subtle nuances of the proverbial fish to such epic proportions. Such was her wizardry that perhaps she could even make you long for her neem-pata-bhaja had she wished. On the downside, I have stopped trying to replicate her recipe as I have at last concluded that there’s no point. That does not mean others were or are lesser mortals. I have had amazing dishes of vegetables and meat made by many of my parental relatives. But, if you ask me to choose between the best chef in the world and my mami on my way to heaven, mami will make the list hands down. I believe the “emotion” factor plays the biggest part here like our first love. And most of us have that one mami or mashi or thakuma who has defined the way we eat.
My affinity towards matters of the kitchen started early, when I was five or six years old, I guess. When I was not at school or was not playing a game of cricket or football with my friends, you would have often found me latching onto my mother’s anchol (the loose end of a saree), quite literally and following her into the kitchen like a duckling. I was fascinated by the way she rolled the chapatis. How a ball of dough was flattened and rolled with dexterous hands such that it spun on its own and formed a perfect circle! That was the first instance that inflamed my passion for food that I can recollect. I practised and practised till I mastered the technique in not more than a week. Since then, whenever there was a large gathering at our place, I would be summoned to roll the chapatis and I did it with a lot of pride. Thankfully, gender bias was nonexistent in our family and I never had to face the misconstrued insult of doing a lady’s job.
In my early childhood through my adolescence, I kept a healthy distance from vegetables and fish. I was admonished frequently for the simple fact that; despite being born a Bengali I detested fish. But, as you have guessed correctly, we Das-es are a stubborn lot. I found the fish bones vexing and the fishy smell obnoxious. My Ma, like all mothers with the noblest intentions in her mind, would often mix little bits of fish into various kinds of vegetables and make bora (fritters) out of those to make me consume that masked abomination, but I would unearth her wicked scheme almost immediately. She couldn’t fathom that I had already developed an extremely delicate nose. You must be confused; then how did I enjoy my mami’s ilish machh. The obvious answer is, that it was mami’s magic in her hands and her sheer brilliance in the kitchen. Ilish or Hilsa, if you would like to call it made by my mami was the only fish I could not resist.
Through my years of experiments with food, I have deduced that “smell” precedes every other aspect of the flavour equation. Can you ever forget the intoxicating whiff of fresh bread when you passed by your favourite bakery? Or the heady aroma of chocolate from your nearest confectionary?
I still dream about those lazy Sundays in Calcutta (I still prefer Calcutta to Kolkata) when you could hear the faint silky jingles by Srabanti Majumdar on “Boroline er Songsar” (the World of Boroline) when the only station available on the radio was that of All India Radio. Just as we learned in our school about the conditioned reflex of a salivating dog in response to a ringing bell, “Boroline er Songshar” made me salivate. Those jingles were synonymous with the all-pervading bouquet of mangsho (mutton curry) emanating from every other household. Again, it was the “smell” that was the prelude to a heavenly afternoon meal.
Sometimes I miss the Kalbaishakhis (Nor’westers) and the heavy monsoons of Calcutta as I live in Delhi, where the weather is generally dry for the better part of the year. When the first drops of rain hit the parched earth, the “fresh rain” aroma called petrichor reminds me of Khichudi (the typical rich and spicy Bengali hodge-podge of rice and lentils) and dim-bhaja (a Bengali style omelette) which is virtually indispensable on a rainy day in a Bengali household. Petrichor comes from a combination of plant oils, ozone and geosmin, a compound secreted by actinomycete soil bacteria whose spores are released when rainwater falls.
The role of smell in building our appetite is undeniable.
What makes food so enjoyable- Sight
Once the prelude of smell whets the appetite sight takes over. I still recall my trips to Manali when the bus would stop at a place called Mandi in the lap of the Himalayas. The local farmer’s market was a sight to behold. It presented a vast spectrum of colours and shapes, bright green and red bell peppers, fresh-picked mushrooms, bundles of scallions, turnip and cucumber, bright red cherries and apples adorned the stalls. It is bound to entice your attention if you happen to pass through the place.
The rising popularity of images of food and cooking videos on social media is perhaps the most powerful testaments to the impact of visuals on eating. Yet the old saying, “Proof of the pudding is in the eating” holds true. Not everything that tastes delicious looks good. That’s where the role of garnish comes in. A few sprigs of fresh parsley or coriander or mint or microgreens add freshness to the dull colours of some food and makes them extremely appealing to the eyes.
Analysis of sight and visuals about gastronomy has reached the molecular level. Colours play a critical role in the perception of taste even before actually tasting. The human brain associates different colours with different tastes. In general, white gives a perception of fatty foods, green- bitter, purple or burgundy- salty or savoury (umami), yellow- sour, brown- sweet and red- hot and spicy. Modern chefs pay a lot of attention to food design. By observing how long customers spend looking at a particular dish and whether they purchase it or not, analysts can establish a conversion rate that they use to understand customer behaviour and provide menu options based on their preferences.
Even geometric shapes influence the perception of flavour. In a study of people’s responses to shapes, participants preferred curved shapes over angular edges. The reason could be that sharp edges like the sharp serrated edges of a knife triggered a signal of threat and danger. There are some exceptions though. Cadbury once introduced a chocolate bar with circular edges instead of their regular rectangular shape. Consumers began complaining. They thought the circular bars tasted too sweet, though the company claimed that they did not change the recipe at all. Sweetness is often associated with curved shapes and bitterness with angular shapes. Can you recall how many times you have been served a Crème Brûlée or Crème Caramel in a rectangular shape? None, I guess. In the case of chocolates, a bitter note is prized by most consumers.
The relation between sight and perception of flavour is intricate. But by innovating and playing with the way food is presented to the eater, chefs have opened up new and exciting opportunities for stimulating our senses and providing unique gastronomic experiences.
The whistling of the kettle, the sputtering of mustard seeds, the hissing of steak searing on the grill, the soft explosions while frying an egg- sounds of cooking mingle so homogenously with our everyday chores that we hardly ever examine their critical importance in making a dish. Sound also speaks volumes about the quality of a product. Listen to the hollow sound of a perfectly baked croissant or the crunch when you cut through a crispy pastry. Freshness can be conveyed by the crunchy sound of a vegetable like a stick of celery when it breaks, or the sound of potato chips and papad when they crumble. Those without the sound can be safely discarded as stale or rancid.
Sounds can also influence the perception of flavour. Restaurants use music to create an ambience of the place according to the theme or the menu. You can listen to the sounds of breaking ocean waves at the Fat Duck restaurant run by Chef Heston Blumenthal in the UK while eating the Sound of the Sea, a dish made with seaweed and seafood. The idea is to enhance the dining experience by evoking an association of seafood with breaking surfs. Sound is often a way of making the guest conscious of the story behind a meal; a reminiscence of a person or the people or the land where the dish originated or a cause.
Sounds can have a negative impact also. Loud sounds can be distracting and can completely spoil your meal. Heavy Metal and Rock can perfectly suit an outlet of Hard Rock Café but can be extremely exasperating in a fine dining restaurant. I had a very unpleasant experience in one of the fanciest oriental restaurants in Delhi. You will be surprised to know how many eateries go entirely wrong with their in-house sound/music vis-à-vis the theme and the menu.
So, the next time you cook, listen to the sounds carefully. More often than not they are the perfect indicators of when to add the next ingredient. When you invite guests to your home for a meal, pay attention to the cause or the occasion and choose your sounds. Your guests might just have a meal of their lifetime.
In this blog, I have tried to provide a qualitative analysis of the build-up to actual taste or mouthfeel. Various other factors define flavour and taste- consistency, texture, brightness, balance and richness. I shall delve into each one of them in my coming write-ups.
Image credits- The Flavor Equation by Nik Sharma