We eat with our eyes, first, goes the popular food adage. It’s why top chefs put as much effort into presenting as preparing food. And now there’s hard evidence that feasting our eyes – and ears, nose and hands and fingers, as well – influences our experience of food. New-fangled scientific techniques and old-fashioned culinary skills are combining to produce a food sensation sweeping the globe – neurogastronomy.
What is Neurogastronomy?
The term references neurology – the study of the brain and nervous system – and gastronomy, the practice of choosing, cooking and eating good food. Neurogastronomy has been described as the science of flavour – or how the brain creates flavour and how our experience of flavour is triggered by biological, emotional and cultural factors. Neurogastronomy combines science and the culinary arts to enhance our experience and enjoyment of food.
How Does Neurogastronomy Work?
We’re all familiar with how we lose our sense of taste when our sense of smell is reduced by a bad cold. Suddenly, food we normally enjoy doesn’t taste as good. This is because taste and smell are intertwined – smelling food stimulates receptor proteins on the cilia at the tips of our olfactory (nose) sensory cells, and this prompts our brains to take notice. Our mouths begin to water in anticipation, and when we pop food morsels into our mouths, our taste buds kick in. The messages we’re receiving from the receptors in our noses and from our taste buds converge, helping us detect and interpret the flavours. Take away our sense of smell, and our taste buds have a harder time doing the job. In fact, researchers reckon 80-95% of what we think of as flavour comes, not from our mouths, but from our noses!
But That’s Not All!
Our other senses – sight, sound and touch – also play an important role in determining flavour. How food looks sends important visual cues to our brains – colour, for example, provides important information about whether or not the food on offer will be good for us. We seem to be more partial to deeper, brighter colours, says Scientific American, and these more intense colours raise our expectations that the flavours will be more intense, also. Then there’s our sense of touch – coffee sipped from a fine bone china mug invariably tastes better than the very same coffee sipped from a takeaway cup, and science backs this up – a series of experiments conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan found that the properties of the receptacle in which coffee is contained influenced a taster’s experience of the beverage. Lastly, there’s sound. Ever wondered why that hake and slap chips tastes better when it’s eaten by the seaside than when it’s eaten at home in front of the telly? The sound of the waves crashing or water lapping against the pier makes the fish ‘n chips experience more pleasurable than the sound of canned laughter on that cheesy sitcom. We’re also more into the food we eat if it makes the right noises as we eat it – think of the crunchy sound made when biting into fresh fruit or veggies or munching potato chips…stale, tasteless food just doesn’t have that same c-r-u-n-c-h!
Who’s Doing Neurogastronomy?
The poster boy of neurogastronomy is Hester Blumenthal, who targets all five senses in his unique brand of ‘molecular gastronomy’, or what he calls ‘science-driven cooking’. His restaurants are part-kitchen, part-laboratory and part-theatre, as he serves up meals which ‘engage all of the senses, and the mind’. The Sound of the Sea – considered one of Hester Blumenthal’s signature dishes – demonstrates the point perfectly: a seafood platter of kingfish, halibut and mackerel, served with five different seaweeds and served on tapioca starch ‘sand’ is accompanied by a recording of the seaside – waves, gulls, ships’ horns and children’s laughter. You can try Hester’s multi-sensory dining experience at his restaurant The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire. Here at home, Cape Town’s The Test Kitchen brings neurogastronomy to South Africans, and was recently voted into the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Hester may be a foodie magician with an act that’s hard to follow, but here are some tricks you too can keep up you sleeve:
- This goes without saying, but use only the freshest, best quality ingredients. Seek out veggies and fruits which will add colour and dimension to your dishes.
- Serve a gin and tonic as an aperitif before dining – GnTs appear to cleanse the palate and reset the olfactory sense, helping us better taste what’s to come.
- Plate up on white – research shows that flavours of food consumed from white plates is perceived as more flavourful than that served on coloured plates.
- Invest in some serious silverware – did you know that food tastes better eaten off solid silver, gold or copper cutlery than it does off of cheaper alloys or, shudder, plastic knives and forks? Not only does it provide a cleaner taste, but that heaviness gives a perception of quality. Same goes for heavy crystal glasses.
Pay attention to the soundtrack – light classical music appears to be the best choice, and heavy metal the worst, according to research. It’s all about the ambience!