In an age of flat screens and mass-produced foods, can heightened sensory experiences fix the disconnection between what we eat and how we eat it?
Like the way chefs teamed up with scientists in the realm of molecular gastronomy, will we soon see the findings of gastrophysicists help to alter the sensory experience of dining?
A frozen cocktail served straight into your hand; strands of spaghetti slung onto a frame, ready to be wrapped around your fingers; pillowy daubs of purée, begging to be prodded. Just another night at Amsterdam's A La Mano, where taste is extended to touch in six courses, led by Italian food designer Giulia Soldati and chef Tommaso Buresti. When I later relayed the experience, opinions were mixed. Apparently, not everyone is a fan of eating with their hands.
But even the enthusiastic responses begged the question: why is it so strange to take eating beyond taste? Clearly, there is a disconnection between what we eat and how we eat it, and the reasons behind the reality are many and mounting. We’ve long worn blinkers when it comes to meat consumption, for example, a topic explored in the recently opened Disgusting Food Museum in the Swedish city of Malmö. People tend to find insects repulsive because they see the whole picture, antennae and all. ‘If we turn insects into flour for baking bread or making pasta,’ says Andreas Ahrens, the museum’s director, 'it’s much easier to eat them without being reminded of [the origin].’ But if society heads down the insect trail for a more sustainable protein source, surely we’ll have to open our eyes and challenge our tolerances.
There are more contemporary concerns at play, too. More than ever, we’re interacting with flat digital surfaces. Similarly, over time, we have ‘detached ourselves from the essence of food by putting distance between our bodies and the materiality of food’, says A La Mano's Soldati. Plus, adds designer Teresa Berger, ‘relying on [our] senses used to be necessary to tell if certain fruits were edible. It’s important not to lose these primal instincts, but to embrace them even more as a counterbalance to our fast-paced, digitised and abstract world. If we would trust our senses again, large amounts of food waste could be avoided.’
By trusting our senses again, large amounts of food waste could be avoided
Berger is the name behind Beyond Taste, eight tableware pieces that spotlight non-flavour-related sensory cues, linked to either the origin or the preparation of certain foods. The project is a response to the relatively new scientific field of gastrophysics, which applies principles from neuroscience, physics and chemistry to better understand the worlds of gastronomy and cooking.
‘Gastrophysics reveals that food is considered more pleasant or perceived to be of higher quality when eaten with heavy metallic cutlery rather than with plastic,’ she notes. ‘It’s also influenced by the way in which it is plated and what it’s served on.’ One of Berger’s pieces contains a hidden speaker. Paired with a smartphone via Bluetooth, the device plays sounds that make chocolate taste sweeter or more bitter.
Could audio brands jump on board to help retrain our taste buds, helping us to cut back on sugar-laden desserts?
Like the way chefs teamed up with scientists to concoct chemistry experiments masking as food in the realm of molecular gastronomy, will we soon see the findings of gastrophysicists help to alter the sensory experience of dining? Designers such as Marije Vogelzang and Katrina Steven have already explored the use of portion control to tackle the issue of overeating, but could gastrophysics offer a more invisible approach? Could audio brands jump on board to help retrain our taste buds, helping us to cut back on sugar-laden desserts? Will Spotify launch a selection of playlists: sweet or savoury?
There is potential for product manufacturers here, too. Martin Kullik is the co-founder of Experimental Gastronomy, an initiative that fosters conscious sustainable eating through a series of multi-sensory events. One such happening included taste-altering cutlery by Renée Boute and Lisanne van Zanten. Dainty blue utensils increased the perception of saltiness in a meal, whereas longer, heavier white cutlery made a dish taste sweeter. ‘Imagine if you started applying that knowledge to places like elderly homes and crèches,’ says Kullik.
While Experimental Gastronomy’s first experience was limited to the artistry of the food and cutlery. Later editions may incorporate everything from glassware and furniture to textiles and fragrance. If tomorrow’s restaurants follow suit and head in an all-encompassing direction, they will have to embrace the art of subtlety. ‘As important as sensory stimulation in eating is,’ says Berger, ‘overstimulation can ruin the entire experience.’
Tracey Ingram is a writer and editor specialising in spatial design, products and concepts that reflect changes in the way we live, work, shop, eat and sleep.