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How sounds can influence our perception of taste

The sound of cooking, music, ambient noise, even the spoken word, all play a role in our enjoyment of food

Crispy carrots with tahini (Photo: Nik Sharma)
Crispy carrots with tahini (Photo: Nik Sharma)

Certain sounds can act as cues during cooking and give us an indication of how to proceed. When preparing the tadka, the crackling sound that arises when the mustard seeds sputter in the pan of hot oil indicate that the oil is hot enough to draw the flavors from the seeds; within a few seconds, that sound ceases and it’s time to take the pan off the heat. The popping sound of corn kernels exploding as they expand in the presence of heat is used as a gauge to determine the cooking time when preparing a big bowl of popcorn for movie night. Depending on how vigorous the air bubbles in my tea kettle sound, I can get a rough sense of whether the water is hot enough for my tea. Some people, especially those with visual impairment, use sound as an essential tool when they work in the kitchen. Alarms, stopwatches, and audible thermometers are helpful to monitor endpoints when cooking, and these days, more sophisticated high-tech options that employ artificial intelligence have entered our lives in the form of a new wave of “smart” kitchen appliances that can tell us when food needs to be removed from a pan or the oven.

Sounds can also affect the perception of flavor. Some restaurants might play a curated list of music to enhance the dinner experience; others might take it a step further. At the Fat Duck restaurant run by Chef Heston Blumenthal in the UK, you listen to the sounds of breaking ocean waves while eating the Sound of the Sea, a dish made with seaweed and seafood; by evoking our association of seafood and breaking surf, the pairing is meant to positively enhance the dining experience.

We pick up sound through auditory receptors, tiny hair cells (not actual hair, but they look hairy) inside the inner ear in an organ called the cochlea. The hair cell contains stereocilia, a bundle of hairlike processes that can pick up sound. Sound waves enter through the outer ear and travel through the ear canal toward the eardrum, and the eardrum begins to vibrate. The intensity of the vibrations depends on the intensity of the sound. The vibrations are transferred to the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure filled with a fluid that moves in response to the sound vibrations. The hair cells lining the surface of the cochlea pick up the sound vibrations and convert the sound vibrations into electrochemical signals in about ten microseconds and send this via nerves to the brain. The brain in turn processes the information to tell us the source and quality of the sound, and we react accordingly.

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Sometimes the start of a meal can be marked by a short speech, a song, a chant, or the ringing of a musical instrument such as a gong or a bell. The purpose is to create the ambience in which the food will be eaten, and often the sound is a way to make the guests conscious of the story behind the meal: a remembrance of a person or people, the land in which the food originated, or a cause.

At Chef Grant Achatz’s Alinea in Chicago, sound plays an important part of the dining experience first by eliminating it, then by reintroducing it. Prior to consuming a meal with a lot of crunchy textures, such as the frozen pearls of English pea soup, cards are handed out to all the guests in the room, asking them to stay silent. With the room quiet, the stage is set: The sound of the frozen soup pearls as they rhythmically fall into the bowls, followed by the sounds of guests crunching on the soup, creates a spectacular and dramatic experience of sound and flavor.

Sound can also have a negative impact on eating; loud sounds can be distracting and make it hard to concentrate. I once met a person who cringed at the sound of foods like potato chips being eaten, so much so that she needed to leave the room every time. She suffers from misophonia, a condition in which certain sounds trigger strong emotional or physiological responses; the continuous sound of crunching chips or chewing of food made her increasingly uncomfortable.

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In discussing the influence that sounds can have on our perception of taste, we’ve covered the sounds that food makes as well as the role of music and ambient noise. The sound of spoken words can also influence our perception of taste. For example, in one study separate soundtracks were played, one with the word “bitter” and the other the word “sweet,” while people ate honeycomb candy, a bittersweet treat prepared by caramelizing sugar. The candy eaten while hearing the word “bitter” was perceived as significantly more bitter than the one eaten while hearing the “sweet” soundtrack.

The next time you’re eating or cooking, pay attention to the sounds around you.

The Flavour Equation—The Science Of Great Cooking Explained: By Nik Sharma, HarperCollins India, 352 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>1,999.
The Flavour Equation—The Science Of Great Cooking Explained: By Nik Sharma, HarperCollins India, 352 pages, 1,999.

Excerpted from The Flavour Equation by Nik Sharma, with permission from HarperCollins India.

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