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Why Amma’s sambar is the best: How flavours are linked to memories

All opinions on food can be safely ignored. Eat what you enjoy and don’t hate on other people’s tastes—be it Schezwan ‘dosas’ or Maggi burgers

Neurogastronomy, or the study of flavour perception, has fundamentally changed how we think about the experience of flavour. (Photo: iStockPhoto)

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Consider coriander. It is, along with cumin, one of the most widely used spices in the subcontinent. It forms the bulk of sambar powder, it imparts a subtle citrusy flavour to a large number of north and west Indian gravies, and when roasted and crushed, its addition to boiled potatoes lends both a burst of flavour and a contrast in mouthfeel to an aloo paratha. But you already know all this. What you might not know is that the word coriander comes from the Greek word for “bedbug” (koris). They believed the spice smelt like bedbugs. And cumin? Many people (particularly in the West) who smell the powdered version of this spice for the first time will tell you that it smells like unwashed feet. And the French name for asafoetida literally means “devil’s dung”.

Before you jump to gather the pitchforks and go after what might, on the surface, seem like a European sense of culinary supremacy, let me tell you another story. A decade and a half ago, I was working in the US, and a colleague of mine from Kerala was expecting a friend of his to bring over a rather precious commodity from his home-town in Kottayam. This was a largish jar of sun-dried anchovies called nethili that was not easily available in South Texas in the early 2000s. The smuggled anchovies themselves were demolished in no time but he kept the empty jar, lid tightly closed, for several weeks. Once or twice a day, he would open it, close his eyes, smell his ancestral home’s kitchen and sigh.

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And yet, the first time I smelt dried fish after growing up in a strictly vegetarian household for almost two decades, I almost threw up. Trimethylamine, it turns out, can both make you throw up or make you picture coconut trees, backwaters and evoke the aromas of Malabar cuisine. As Harold McGee, author of Nose Dive, points out, jasmine and human faeces share similar aroma molecules, but clearly one of them is a more pleasant experience. Context matters. Eighty per cent of the perception of flavour is aroma, and the last decade of research in neurogastronomy, or the study of flavour perception, has fundamentally changed how we think about the experience of flavour.

Taste and olfaction evolved first primarily to help our mammalian ancestors distinguish between poisons and edibles, and then to detect foods with a high density of nutrients. This is why we crave sugary and fatty foods. But ever since Homo erectus, our immediate primate ancestor, discovered controlled fire and cooking, it changed the game. All of a sudden, we were not just eating food to survive, it became an object of pleasure. And since Darwinian evolution hasn’t had enough time to alter our noses, mouths and brains to deal with the deliciousness of food, it simply repurposed existing brain wiring to put together a jugaad solution. The part of the brain that deals with memory and nostalgia was co-opted to deal with the experience of flavour, and it makes sense because flavour is a multidimensional experience—involving aromas, taste, sensations (like temperature) and mouthfeel (texture).

So it’s not surprising that our language regularly uses expressions like “in bad taste”, “disgusting” and “bitter aftertaste”. And since memories and nostalgia are involved, religions, caste and tribal identities are often defined on the basis of food taboos.

But a less appreciated side effect of using that part of the brain for experiencing food is that we remember flavours not merely by a combination of aromas, taste, sensations and mouthfeel but tag on location, settings and emotions. This is why what we eat as children plays a disproportionate role in the kind of food we are able to enjoy as adults. The reason your mom’s dal or sambar tastes better to you is not because she is a better cook than a Michelin star chef. It’s because the flavour memories of her dal include her and your home. This is also why chaat tastes better on the street because the environment of the street is part of the flavour experience. Quite literally so, as neurogastronomy research tells us.

How we experience flavour is, therefore, deeply personal and unique. If you grew up eating dosas cooked by your mother regularly, the experience of trying out a Schezwan or chocolate dosa is fundamentally different from how someone who did not grow up eating dosas will experience it. Novelty in food is easier to appreciate only in the absence of familiarity (and nostalgia).

This also means that your negative opinion of Schezwan dosas and Maggi burgers is entirely pointless because all you are doing is attempting to pass off your inability to experience novelty as a result of being crippled by familiarity, as some kind of objective judgement.

In short, what I am saying is—all opinions on food can be safely ignored. Eat what you enjoy and don’t hate on other people’s tastes. Bedbugs, smelly feet or Schezwan dosas.

Krish Ashok is the author of Masala Lab: The Science Of Indian Cooking. @krishashok

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