Food and psychology go hand in hand a lot more than we realise. With the emergence of the gastrophysics trend, the way we approach eating and dining out has gone scientific, and may never be the same again
I think about food – a lot. Not just planning dinner before breakfast is over; that’s for amateurs. I Google menus before committing to a restaurant, plan holidays around where friends recommend dining spots and have been known to fit five substantial meals, plus snacks, into a single day.
It turns out, though, there may be something other than greed propelling my innate joy in food. It is, after all, about the experience. Restaurants don’t consult architects, florists and lighting experts for nothing: scientists now know that the very taste of food is affected by the colours, textures, and sounds around us.
“I was very keen to create different personalities for the different areas within Chai Ki,” says Rohit Chugh, owner of the modern Indian restaurant. “From a casual mood in the all-day Toddy Shop bar and more formal one in the restaurant, to a sense of calm and tranquility for our outdoor waterside terrace and a private and cosy space on the mezzanine deck.”
Notions around how foods make us feel; why we like and dislike certain foods if we each taste foods in the same way, and how the brain forms associations with certain foods, is an emerging science, now with a formal name: gastrophysics.
Traditionally, we talk about taste buds when identifying flavour. Receptors on the tongue recognise the different sensations of sweetness, sourness, saltiness and bitterness, along with the newly recognised umami taste (a savoury warmth). But in reality, ‘tasting’ starts long before then, with the brain integrating everything from the sound of butter spreading on a roll to the image of a molten chocolate fondant and an eye-watering reaction when we eat something spicy.
Taking this understanding to the next level is Kitchen Theory, a company offering multisensory dining experiences to the public. Guests encounter a world in which they may stroke velvet while eating, to see if food tastes sweeter, or ponder the notion that if one could hear ‘sonic seasoning’, less salt would be needed.
Jozef Youssef is the founder and CEO of Kitchen Theory. One aspect of food and taste he has been investigating, in collaboration with Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, and coiner of the phrase ‘gastrophysics’, is colour. “We know that in Western cultures, red tones are associated with sweetness, black with bitterness, white with saltiness and green with sourness,” says Youssef. “If you serve a red mousse on a white plate versus a black plate, people will perceive the mousse on the white plate to be up to ten per cent sweeter.” But not so if you go to, say, Mexico, where red is perceived as sour, showing just how intrinsically cultural and geographical the colour/taste link is.”
It goes even deeper than that, right into traditions and beliefs. “If you go to Asia, colour signifies an awful lot in terms of the season and occasion which the food is being served for. They have correlations between, say, gold representing prosperity, and those cultural associations will obviously skew your perception,” Youssef says.
If you serve a red mousse on a white plate versus a black plate, people will perceive the mousse on the white plate to be up to ten per cent sweeter
Sound matters, too. “We all complain about aeroplane food not being great, but part of that is because high noise levels suppress your ability to taste saltiness and sweetness, but not umami. So when British Airways was trying to improve their food, they enlisted the help of Heston Blumenthal and he started putting a lot more umami-rich foods in their meals, on the back of this kind of research,” explains Youssef.
It’s fascinating stuff, making you realise the food industry is more complex and dynamic than you may have given it credit for. Think about background music in a restaurant – the playlist isn’t random.
“If you play quite melodic sounds – say the tinkling of a piano – people associate that more with sweetness, whereas if you play screeching on a violin, it’s more sourness that’s conjured up. Researchers have also looked at how certain sounds or pieces of music match really well with wines and others don’t.”
It’s actually more inherent than you think. Youssef asks me if I think a deep cello noise fits with a Rosé or a Malbec, and with no hesitation, and no prior knowledge, I say the latter.
Now, gastrophysics has hit our screens. Tasteology, a five-episode documentary series, aired earlier this year, and instead of asking chefs about food, it poses the same questions to a scientist, a famous Instagrammer, a food waste activist and others. Make no mistake: it’s fun, rather than boring classroom science.
And a Kitchen Theory dinner sounds like the most fun of all. “We wanted to put a ‘happy’ food on the menu,” says Youssef. “We thought of all the different possibilities – like ice cream, but then you never know – ice cream could also have connotations of having just been dumped so you have a tub of ice cream with your girlfriends. Eventually we came up with candyfloss. Even if you don’t like candyfloss, it makes you smile.” I think about it. He’s not wrong.
We wanted to put a ‘happy’ food on the menu
But fun is just half of it. “We also want to teach people about the importance of where ingredients come from when you buy them from the supermarket.” And as you may imagine, a Kitchen Theory education isn’t from a textbook.
“We served duck. Before we served the dish, the waitress came out and apologised that it would be late as the chef would still catching it. Then there were sounds of ducks quacking, which started as a joke, but got more urgent and uncomfortable, as via a sound system you heard ducks being chased, then caught. Then there was the sound of a sharp knife as the duck was killed. The tone in the room changed.”
The idea? If you can’t listen to that, the taste of duck becomes less appetising.
As for the future: Youssef believes sustainable food habits lie in insect-eating, or entomophagy, so if you have a deep-rooted fear of creepy-crawlies, you may want to stop reading.
“We know that insects are a great source of protein and that it would shift us away from intensive agriculture. When we served insects, we weren’t doing roasted cockroach on a skewer; we were using the insect flour to make dishes. We fed hundreds of children cricket brownies at the Science Museum a couple of months ago and they were lapping them up. Once they tried that, they were open to trying jellyfish. There was much more resistance from adults.”
But these same adults are fuelling London’s thriving food scene. Multisensory dining, and carefully paired experiences are on the up. At Chai Ki, Chugh says: “Right now we’re having a lot of fun trying out which cocktails and London craft beers work best with our soul food sharing plates. We also have exciting plans for Diwali in October that will encompass food, music, drink and film.”
Gone are the days of needing to venture abroad for authentic tapas or specialist cheeses: London has it all, and niche restaurants are popping up all over the place, capitalising on the knowledge that an emotive experience enhances food.
Think of the long queues for unbookable restaurants that increase your anticipation, before garnering rave reviews from hungry diners. The takeaway (excuse the pun) from all this? Savour food. Put thought into what you’re eating and how it makes you feel. Gastrophysics is both an art and a science, and it’s not going anywhere.