“The more we understand how something works, the more we can trick it into doing other things,” says Anne McBride, a professor of food studies and the director of the Experimental Cuisine Collective at NYU. This month, Per La Mente delves into the many ways to trick our palate by way of our other senses, including sight, smell, and touch. Joining the conversation are Erik Trinidad, food journalist and creator of Fancy Fast Food, and flavor historian Nadia Berenstein.
There are so many ways to create a deliciously deceptive dining or drinking experience. This means messing with our senses, in subtle or obvious ways, using natural or synthetic tricks, to change the way we interact with our food.
Cooks have long experimented with the way food appears on a plate, whether using unexpected combinations of colors, deconstructing traditional recipes, or reshaping the presentation of common foods. As we know from today’s social media saturation, the way a meal looks is nearly as important as how it tastes — if not more so. The extreme end of the trend of playing with a meal’s appearance is molecular gastronomy, where foods are dissected and reconstructed to the point that they bear no resemblance to any expectation of how they should look. Scientific chefs like Hervé This have taken this practice to a place of high-end culinary artistry.
It’s fairly common knowledge that smell has a major impact on our taste buds — according to some studies, between 75 and 95% of what we call “taste” is actually scent. This understanding can lead us to discover unexpected groups of foods that go well together. Chefs and mixologists can use a wide array of tools to do so, with sites like Food Pairings demonstrating the aromatic underpinnings of some very surprising combos, like beef and white chocolate, oysters and passion fruit, or eggplant and pomegranate.
Other senses can deceive our palates in somewhat less obvious ways. For example, sounds of a certain volume can impact our ability to taste different flavors. According to Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology and author of the book Gastrophysics, this is why people are far more likely to order a Bloody Mary on an airplane than a gin and tonic: the high volume of background noise dulls our sense of sweetness while enhancing savory flavors. Spence has also studied the “music” of foods like coffee, apples, and potato chips, finding that we perceive crunchier foods to be fresher and that we will enjoy our caffeine much less if the machine that makes it emits unpleasant sounds while doing so.