Years ago, a new craze in cuisine emerged to wreak havoc on our notions of what a high-end meal should be: molecular gastronomy.
As a result, many adventurous eaters found themselves in Michelin-starred restaurants sucking helium out of green apple balloons. Or eating popcorn that made flavored air shoot out their noses, as if they were dragons sent to protect the gleaming towers of modernist cuisine.
But now, many chefs looking for a new way to dazzle guests are taking this culinary science one step further. Instead of just hacking each ingredient to create mind-boggling eating experiences, they’re hacking your mind directly.
Enter neurogastronomy: the nascent study of how the brain creates flavor.
You Eat with Your Eyes … and Everything Else
Neurogastronomy, in relation to cuisine, isn’t just cooking. It’s the manipulation of all of your senses — including what you hear, feel, and see — to ensure you experience the precise flavor sensation desired by the chef.
Something as simple as the shape of food, for example, affects how much of your tongue and the roof of your mouth are exposed to the flavor, and for how long. In the case of foods that melt, the shape also affects how quickly the transition from solid to molten happens, and therefore the rate at which certain compounds are released and picked up by your tongue.
The result? A potentially very different taste.
Cadbury learned this the hard way when they changed the shape of their beloved Dairy Milk chocolate bar. Shortly after switching the chocolate from jagged pieces to more melt-friendly, rounded discs, complaints started flooding in from long-time fans who insisted the company had changed the candy’s flavor.
But even something as seemingly unrelated as your surroundings can change the way you perceive taste. Scientists from Oxford conducted a study in which they offered participants Singleton whiskey in three very different environments and asked them to describe the flavor.
Despite being given the same liquor in each room, participants consistently rated the beverage as having very different characteristics depending on where they consumed it.
For example, in a room with grass covering the floor and green lighting, the participants reported that the whiskey smelled significantly grassier. In a “sweet” room, decked out with red lighting and rounded furnishings, the whiskey was reported as tasting sweeter.
In the wood-paneled “finish” room complete with the sound of a crackling fire — my personal favorite environment to consume such beverages — the participants found the drink overall more pleasurable.
Served with a Side of Sound
In response to this complex new understanding of flavor, chefs all over the world are changing the way you taste their food — not with ingredients, but with sensory details.
Heston Blumenthal, for example, offers guests at his London-based restaurant Fat Duck a seafood specialty served with an iPod, urging them to listen to the sound of crashing waves while enjoying their dish.
Famed chef Ferran Adrià of El Bulli offered his guests strawberry mousse on either black or white plates, finding a strange link between the color of the dishware and the perceived sweetness of the dessert.
Even clinicians are getting on board the new trend. Dr. Miguel Sanchez Romera — a trained neurologist and self-taught chef — opened his ode to neurogastronomy, Romera, in New York in 2012. Although it closed after 6 months, Romera is still considered one of the first restaurants dedicated to this concept.
The Science of Savor
Does this feel a little futuristic sci-fi to you? It should. Our understanding of precisely how the brain processes the stimuli associated with taste is still fairly limited, making the study of neurogastronomy the very cutting edge of science.
Just as umami was emerging as a “new taste” several years ago, scientists recently discovered the presence of a fat receptor on the human tongue, potentially making fat the sixth basic flavor.
But even with the addition of a fat receptor, our tongues are still fairly limited in terms of sensations they are capable of detecting. Our noses, however, are capable of distinguishing millions — potentially trillions — of scents, changing the way we perceive flavor in a process called “referred sensation.”
And this doesn’t even take into account the sensory potential of our eyes, ears, and nerves. All things considered, there are nearly unlimited possibilities for how flavors can be adjusted to meet chef’s needs — and the kinds of taste sensations we could experience in the future.
Want to learn about the science behind why we can’t get enough of bacon?