The unspoken language of food

In this paper I am going to explore the relationship between food, flavour and self-identity from my personal experience as a chef and food writer. Every culinary choice that we make defines who we are, not just to ourselves, but also to others. Cooking is an unspoken language, but it is one that few analyse or clearly understand.   I am not referring to culinary techniques or social fashions, but rather to the main sensory relationship that we have with food, in particular with its smell.   It is this sense that appears to link us most strongly with emotion and memory, and therefore our identity. The scents of freshly baked bread or of crushed mint, for example, instantly evoke memories and associative emotions to anyone familiar with them, and in turn have an influence on their behavior.

 

Taste, flavour and emotion

For the purposes of this paper, it is important to clarify the difference between taste and flavour.   There is often confusion amongst cooks as to the meaning of these two terms.   This is hardly surprising as in everyday English the two words are often interchangeable.   However, it helps to differentiate their meaning in order to understand how we experience food.   In this context taste refers to the five tastes – bitter, sweet, salty, sour and umami – which can only be detected in the mouth from water-soluble compounds in our food 1.  

 

Flavour is often mistaken for taste, but is actually a complex mixture of smell, taste and what is often referred to as ‘mouth feel’.   In order to explore the ideas in this paper, I am going to refer solely to the olfactory aspect of flavour.   In other words, when I refer to flavour here, I mean smell or what the olfactory cells in the roof of the nasal cavity pick up from air-borne compounds. These can be in the air around us or released from the food in our mouths.

 

An easy way to understand the difference between taste and flavour is to crush a bay leaf and sniff.   It will release a sweet herbal fragrance, the delicate flavour of a creamy béchamel sauce.   Now, take a tentative bite.   You will discover that it tastes repulsively bitter.   In other words, it is the smell of the bay leaf rather than its taste that flavours the food.  

 

As all food writers know, one of the best ways to lure a reader into cooking is to write an evocative article. The food is put into a desirable context.   This might be conjuring up a cosy kitchen, where the reader feels they can almost lick the chocolate from your mixing bowl, or it might be some foreign land, where they can almost taste the exotic foods cooked by the roadside.   In either case, the first thing the reader subconsciously does is to smell everything you describe.   The mere thought sets their mouth watering, and with luck they will want to recreate a sense of what they have read and felt.  

 

For many years, little was understood about how our sense of smell works, but in 2004 Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries of “odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system” or as Linda Buck entitled her Nobel Lecture   “unraveling the sense of smell’’ 2.   They discovered an enormous gene family, comprising of some 1,000 different genes (three per cent of our genes) that give rise to an equivalent number of olfactory receptor types. In essence, their work showed how we are able to recognize and remember about 10,000 different odours.   These receptors are located on the olfactory receptor cells, which occupy a small area in the upper part of the nasal epithelium and detect the inhaled odorant molecules. It is through this mechanism that we detect the scent of food when eating.   Furthermore, these signals take a surprisingly direct path to influence the activity of those areas of the brain to do with emotion and memory.   All of the other senses are less immediately experienced because they are heavily filtered and modified by other areas of the brain before they can do this.

 

Consider munching an apple.   You taste its sweet sour flesh, perhaps even a hint of bitterness in the skin, but it is the apple’s flavour or smell that releases myriad delicious notes. Moreover, this mechanism, by which we can consciously experience a smell can recall that same olfactory memory at other times.   Take melted chocolate:   whenever the same aroma is smelt, it will trigger distinct memories and emotional reactions, which can be posititve or negative depending on the earlier experiences.   Anyone who has been ill from eating a bad mussel, for example, will know that even years later, their slightly sulphurous ozone smell can prevent you from eating them, no matter how good the dish.

 

When there is little to eat, our sense of smell is crucial to ensure that we eat safely; in the same way as our ability to taste umami helps us to consume a proteinaceous diet.   However, in a well-fed world, smell takes on a different role.   We can choose foods whose aromas make us feel good through their positive associations; and we can select recipes whose smell projects a particular message about ourselves to others.

Thus, when I grind some Brazilian coffee beans, their rich scent instantly reminds me of student days and Italian holidays.   Their fragrance makes me feel both young and sophisticated.   I like the feeling and image and decide to play on it by making a coffee crème caramel.   If my guests have equally positive associations, their love of coffee will colour how they perceive me and how much they enjoy eating my dish.

 

Everyone interprets flavour according to his or her own cultural context. Every aspect of eating can indicate different social classes, ideologies and nationality. On the simplest level, a Jain or vegan is unlikely to feel comfortable in a home that is filled with the scent of roast beef.   At a more complex level, the Japanese appreciate the aesthetics of releasing a puff of aromatic steam when they remove the lid from a bowl of suimono (clear) soup before admiring its physical beauty and pure taste 3.   Yet, it would be deemed impolite amongst the English upper classes to sniff a bowl of consommé, no matter how good it smelled.

 

The language of flavours

Wine enthusiasts are familiar with categorizing different fragrances in their drink, but most cooks have not consciously given the matter much thought.   In culinary terms, this is akin to talking without fully understanding the meaning of the words you use.   Every flavour we create has resonances, and the deeper our awareness of smell, the better our ability to create good food.

 

In theory, there are an infinite number of smells and their combinations, so rather than be overwhelmed by the complexity of the subject, I found it helpful to try to categorize different flavours into broad groups such as verdant, citrus, ozone, earth and fungi 4.   This helped me to identify foods that have a predominant flavour and then see how they worked within my cooking. Earthy notes, for example, can be found in many grains such as oats, barley and buckwheat, as well as in pulses and root vegetables.

 

Once you start to focus on a particular category of flavour it is surprising how sensitive you become to that aroma.   My mental starting point for earth was the smell of mud from my rural childhood, which I might add has a sweeter more vegetable-like aroma than rank-smelling London clay.   As I began to identify elements of earthiness in different foods, I realized that it is a smell that requires careful handling. A hint of rain-splashed muddy vegetables can evoke a primeval sense of oneness with nature, but too strong a whiff can trigger revulsion with its closeness to foul smells. Think of the delicious earthy flavour of a baked potato.   It hints at camp fires and freshly dug soil.   Now imagine eating stewed brown lentils with mushrooms.   Their equally sweet earthy flavour is amplified by the fungic aroma of the mushrooms to create a sense of rotting vegetation which would be unpleasant to eat.

 

As I began to explore foods within my chosen group of flavours, it became clear that each flavour group required a different culinary approach.   Earthy flavoured ingredients, for example, tend to be starchy.   This has several implications: first, that care is needed in their preparation to prevent their natural sweetness from becoming cloying 5; and second, that an earthy aroma can also be associated with what are widely considered to be ‘comfort’ foods and will therefore generate a secondary emotional reaction in the eater.

 

To illustrate this point further, it is worth looking at a contrasting flavour such as verdant. I used the smell of freshly cut grass as my starting point for tracking down verdant flavoured food, such as watercress, parsley, spinach and pea shoots.   The nature of such foods is ephemeral as their aroma is easily destroyed by prolonged contact with heat.   Many also have an underlying bitter taste.   This means that verdant flavoured foods should either be added raw at the last minute to a dish, or blanched to lessen their bitterness and capture some of their fragrance.   Winter greens, for example, are both bitter and verdant, but by briefly blanching them and then adding them at the last minute to a hot dish, the cook can make them taste sweeter and more fragrant.  

 

So far, so obvious, but then there is the tricky question of how we respond emotionally to verdant flavours.   This is, of course, entirely subjective. In my mind, verdant flavours are associated with a wonderful feeling of bubbling optimism. The scent of green leaves, spring showers and warm days induce a feeling of anticipation in me. To translate this into culinary terms means introducing constant verdant flavoured excitement into a dish, either by contrasting textures, such as with a mixed leaf salad, or by layering flavours so that the verdant notes add an element of surprise, for instance, by biting into a prawn and watercress sandwich and discovering a hint of sorrel hidden in the watercress.

 

Flavours in our environment

In order to understand how different flavours affect us, it is necessary to set food aside for a minute and consider our normal, everyday environment. What does it smell like?   We are literally bombarded by different scents all the time, but we only focus on a smell when it is different from normal.   Thus, most of us wouldn’t be able to describe the smell of our homes, unless we had just returned after a long absence or suddenly discovered an unusual aroma like unexpected damp or the drains. To become aware of all the different scents of our surroundings requires constant conscious analysis.   Take the streets of central London: their underlying smell is a mixture of dust, traffic fumes and dirt. This is then overlaid with myriad different odours ranging from fragrant flowers and stale alcohol to cooked food and wood smoke.

 

The reason for such analysis is that during the process of writing my last book Citrus and Spice A Year of Flavour , I realised that our cooking is deeply influenced by the smell of our environment.   In North India, for example, the evening air hangs heavy with smoke from small fires fuelled by dried cow pats.   Their intense aroma, mixed with spices and sizzling ghee, permeates the Indian cook’s perception of life.   Adding smoky flavourings such as tar-like black cardamoms or heavy-scented cloves to aromatic rice and earthy dahl dishes creates a pleasing resonance with the smell of everyday life.   To give another example, if you eat the food of the Outer Hebrides, you can pick up the scent of sea spray, moorland mist, heather and peat smoke. The pure natural scent of this environment is interpreted into foods that are dominated by few notes, such as earth, ozone, smoke and honey.   This is perfected in an Islay

malt whisky, but can be enjoyed in dishes such as hot smoked salmon with oat cakes and tea soaked fruit cake.

 

In other words, when you set about creating the categories of flavour you want to explore, your choice will automatically be influenced by your environment as well as by your personal taste and cultural background. As a Londoner, I will inevitably translate some of the smells around me into food.   A cold November London night, with its smell of taxi fumes, Indian restaurant cooking and smoke, for example, results in a spicy black bean chilli flavoured with smoked Spanish paprika and cumin.

 

Synthesis

When you are choosing which flavour groups to analyze in your cooking, it is worth drawing up a general list and then selecting those that have the greatest resonance with you.   These could range from light smells such as citrus, ozone, floral and verdant to heavier flavours, for example, earth, fungi, smoke, toast, nut, caramel and savoury.   There are many others, including butter, cream, herbal, fruit, spice and resinous. You could even consider putrid as there is nothing to say that a flavour has to be nice 6.   Terasi (balachan or shrimp paste), for instance, smells horrid, yet in tiny quantities its flavour adds an irresistible element to Javanese food 7.    Many categories, such as fruit, herbal and spice are enormous and can be sub-divided.

 

There then comes the task of considering your emotional response to different flavours.   Obviously, I can only highlight what certain flavours mean to me, but perhaps this will help to clarify your own thoughts.   So, here is a selection of some of my favourite positive and negative flavours.    First, the positive.   Citrus notes instill a sense of excitement and a desire for simplicity; ozone flavours, such as you might find in oysters or seaweed, are imbued with a feeling of freedom and energy that comes from windswept beaches.   Cream and butter aromas suggest dreamy thoughtfulness, while floral scents such as rose and lavender evoke a childhood sense of rural English life.  

 

Now for the negative: in other words, flavours I prefer to avoid or will use with a very light hand as they can make me feel uncomfortable. These tend to be smells that somehow seem tainted or related to bad food.   Sulphur notes, for example, fill me with anxiety.   These can be found in a surprising number of ingredients, ranging from eggs to asafetida.   The bloody iron-like smell of some foods, such as mutton and liver also make me feel uneasy, while the smell of processed pork products epitomised by spam and cheap sausages, induces a sense of revulsion.   As an aside, it is interesting to note that food writers rarely write about bad flavours as editors think that such topics will not sell copy, yet understanding what and why something tastes bad is crucial to becoming a good cook.

 

Once you have established your flavour palette and explored individual flavour groups, you can start to use them together.   Imagine serving a blackberry crumble.   The scent of bubbling sugary blackberries instantly conjures up a sense of comfort that should make you relax and feel happy and spoilt, provided of course, you like blackberry crumble.   If you then make a crumble topping with ground roasted hazelnuts, you will add an evocative toasted nut flavour that might add a frisson of excitement; or you could flavour the blackberries with cinnamon, which would reinforce the sense of homely comfort.  

 

The future

Food manufacturers are starting to conduct research on which aromas induce positive emotions in the eater, particularly in relation to different tastes. The apparently soothing nature of vanilla, for example, appears to negate bitterness in food.   It is likely that most consumers will not notice if they are being manipulated in this way, since the widespread increase in the use of the artificial taste enhancer monosodium glutamate to make poor quality food taste more alluring has occurred with little comment.

 

Chefs are also beginning to experiment with aroma. Heston Blumenthal, chef owner of the three Michelin-starred The Fat Duck in England uses smell to influence the diner’s perception by artificially conjuring up a landscape. A classic example is a dish entitled Oak Moss and Truffle Toast.   When I ate it, they placed on the table a bed of moss, under which was hidden dry ice.   This released a billowing mist, so that you smelt the moss as you allowed a tiny piece of oak flavoured film to melt on your tongue before biting into a delicious piece of truffle and oak buttered toast, which was then alternated with some parfait of foie gras and matsutake puree.   It was like eating pure autumn.   Massimiliano Alajmo, chef owner of the three Michelin-starred Ristorant Le Calandre in Italy, meanwhile, has partnered up with the perfumer Lorenzo Dante Ferro to create distillates of natural flavours such as cardamom, bergamot and ginger.   He then takes a dish, such as broad bean curds, langoustine and radicchio and sprays his marinated seared langoustines with a lemon distillate at the last moment, just before he plates them. The prawns are not soured with a squeeze of lemon juice, but the dish does contain a little lemon zest.   His concept is to use smell to accentuate an element in the recipe or to deceive the eater.   In other words, he sees it as a means of removing the eater from reality and playing with flavour. It may well be a sign of cooking to come that he now sells some of these distillates as Essenze in his In.grediets line.

 

Cooking and eating is about being alive.   The food writer acts like a conduit between cook and ingredient – heightening the cook’s awareness and appreciation. The more we start to consciously smell the world around us, the more we will appreciate everything that we make and eat, albeit through an unspoken language.


1 David V. Smith and Robert F. Margolskee, Making Sense of Taste , Scientific American, March 2001

 

2 Linda B. Buck, Unraveling the Sense of Smell , Nobel Lecture, December 8, 2004

 

3 Shizuo Tsuji, Japanese Cooking A Simple Art , Kodansha International, 1985

 

4   Sybil Kapoor, Citrus and Spice A Year of Flavour , Simon & Schuster, 2008

 

5   Sybil Kapoor, Taste A New Way to Cook , Mitchell Beazley, 2003

 

6   Luca Turin, The Secret of Scent Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell ,    Faber & Faber, 2006

 

7   Sri Owen, Indonesian Food and Cookery , Prospect Books, 1986


This is a lecture I gave at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery in 2009.  The subject of the Symposium was Food and Language.  It is also published in Food and Language, Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2009, published by Prospect Books. 

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