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Photo: Rainier Ridao via Unsplash

Almost without fail—and without thinking—everyone says they’d rather be able to taste than to feel their food. That may not be the smartest choice.

This month, A Beautiful Perspective is exploring touch in all its forms and contexts. Click here to read more stories from the TOUCH Issue.

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“Would you rather” is a well-known icebreaker used in classrooms, at parties and at awkward corporate retreats. Questions range from silly to serious, thoughtful to unthinkable: Would you rather give up cheese or wine? Would you rather accidentally be responsible for the death of a child or accidentally be responsible for the deaths of three adults?

My go-to question: “Would you rather lose your sense of taste or your ability to determine texture?”

Almost without fail, and without thinking very long or hard about it, everyone says they’d rather be able to taste. Texture is whatever. But despite the fact that certain tastes—bitterness, for example—may help us avoid toxic bites, the affinity for taste over texture may not be the smartest evolutionary choice.

To wit: I once read a study about taste and texture—I can’t recall where or exactly when—that is now archived forever in my mind. This memory is like old cheese: crumbly, moldy, only half useful. But the impact of it was as impressive as one’s first stinging bite of Gorgonzola. This particular experiment involved two groups of rats. One set had their taste buds cauterized; the other had the nerve endings in their mouths severed. The rats who could no longer taste their food, but could feel it, survived. The rodents who could not determine crunchy from soft, creamy from crisp, lost their appetites and their will to live. All the rats in that group died.

Although food writers use them almost interchangeably, taste and flavor do not have the same definition. Dr. Ole G. Mouritsen, co-author (with chef Klavs Styrbæk) of the book Mouthfeel: How Texture Makes Taste, notes that “strictly and scientifically speaking, taste refers only to the recognition of taste substances by the taste buds. On the other hand, flavor is multimodal and engages, to a greater or lesser degree, all five senses.”

Texture and mouthfeel are not transposable either. Texture refers to the consistency of a foodstuff. Mouritsen, a professor in Gastrophysics and Food Innovation at the University of Copenhagen, explains that mouthfeel is actually part of the somatosensory system. If you reduce it to simplistic terms, it’s a blanket word for the signals that the nerve endings in the mouth send to the brain about temperature, pain, touch and pressure.

“I grabbed a pinch of salt, put it directly on my tongue, and it tasted—no, felt—like slowly dissolving sand.”

Mouthfeel can be influenced, too, by chemesthesis—sensations caused by chemical reactions in foodstuffs, such as capsaicin in chile peppers. Cold milk, for instance, might soothe a flash of heat on the tongue; viscosity trumps irritant.

The fields of gastrophysics and neurogastronomy are complicated, fascinating and emerging. What’s clear is that for our mouths and our brains, the tactile contributes, along with the other senses, to our overall conception of “flavor.” It is equally as, if not more important than, taste.

Imagine an apple without the crunch ... or maybe don't. Khamkhor via Unsplash

Molecular gastronomy is the scientific discipline where cooking meets chemistry and physics. In layman’s terms, this means that chefs invested in this highly technical culinary experimentation like to play around with texture and mouthfeel; what you see (an olive) is not always what you experience on the palate (a burst of liquid olive, the fruit distilled to its purest form).

While it’s not my favorite methodology, I’ve had my share of culinary life-changing encounters with chefs who shapeshift foodstuffs: at El Bulli Hacienda Benazuza, Ferrán Adrià’s property in Seville; at a friend’s wedding in Basque country, attended to by Juan Mari Arzak and Elena Arzak Espina; at Alinea in Chicago, where Grant Achatz retained his reputation while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation for stage IVb squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth. (I’ve had some awful experiences, too, and won’t repeat them here except to say do not ever eat a candied oyster.)

For those not familiar with Achatz, the memoir he wrote with business partner Nick Kokonas, Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat is an insight into how seriously taste and texture affect our outlook. When Achatz was informed the only way to treat his cancer was radical surgery—cutting out his tongue and removing part of his jaw—he refused. It would have ended his sense of self as well as his vocation.

The Japanese have more than 400 words to describe the texture of food, while Americans only have about 80.

Achatz found a treatment plan that allowed him not to have the surgery, but it came with a cost: During his third week of radiation, he famously lost his sense of taste right before a busy Friday night shift. He describes the moment in sensory terms: “I grabbed a pinch of salt, put it directly on my tongue, and it tasted—no, felt—like slowly dissolving sand.”

It’s a haunting tale of misery, an ironic one, too, because the James Beard Award-winning Achatz doesn’t realize then that he also is going to lose what he most likes to manipulate: mouthfeel. “At that point,” he writes, “I was fairly well versed in removing texture from pretty much any food.” Not only was he constantly ill, the burns in his mouth from radiation were too painful to allow him to eat. Mouritsen reminds us that irritants play a primary role in mouthfeel. Achatz had a mouthful of them.

What's the word for the singular sensation of eating cotton candy? Yarden via Unsplash

Culturally speaking, sometimes pure texture more than mouthfeel informs cuisine. Dr. Charles Spence, head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Somerville College in Oxford, UK, answered my questions from Japan, where he was consulting with colleagues. “Certainly, here and in other parts of Asia, foods can be prized solely for their texture, i.e., even if they have no taste, in a way that is simply not the case in the West.”

This may be why, for example, the Japanese have more than 400 words to describe the texture of food, while Americans only have about 80, a fact that Mouritsen points out in his book. He also notes that the Japanese have three different words for mouthfeel alone.

Even practicing in America, many omakase chefs take great care with the fish to create taste and textural hierarchies, starting with the mildest and softest, and moving toward the oiliest, meatiest, and sometimes cooked pieces. “It is accurate to say that our approach and take on mouthfeel and textures is in the heart of what we do,” says Tadashi Shiraishi, the sushi chef at Hiden, an eight-seat omakase restaurant in Miami.

But there’s another motive behind the structure of textural set pieces. And that, Shiraishi believes, is memory: “We all have some kind of special dish from our childhood. Sometimes it is not even an elaborate dish but it is special to us.” For Shiraishi, those memories surface when he eats crunchy food, or food that offers several different layers. “I love food that makes sound when we take a bite,” he says.

Spence agrees that texture, more than taste, drives cravings and, perhaps more importantly, aversions. “Those people who don’t like certain foods often seem to have a problem with unique textures, be it oysters, tomatoes or bananas.”

I feel this. The sandiness of pears and grittiness of figs make me wince, but their overall flavor doesn’t offend me. But sometimes, even when taste and texture are—or should be—just right, culture comes in to gatekeep. Both Spence and Mouritsen address eating insects in their respective books. “We should all find the idea rather more desirable than, in fact, we do,” Spence writes. Indeed, Mouritsen describes insects as “foods with a perfect mouthfeel” given their “crisp, crunchy exoskeleton and softer innards.”

If you didn’t know better, he could be talking about French fries.

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Early in my second pregnancy, I had such a bad cold that I couldn’t taste a thing. Nor could I take medication to alleviate the congestion in my sinuses, so it lingered for weeks. Pregnancy itself was a taste-changing experience of another kind. It forced me to crave oranges, which the non-pregnant me generally dislikes, and gave me an aversion to shrimp.

But at least, with this head cold, I could feel the food in my mouth. Tortilla chips were still crisp, the salsa on them a cool, wet zing. Mashed potatoes were a blanket of fluff. Soup was hot; even if I couldn’t tell whether the broth was chicken or beef, it was comforting.

But if I closed my eyes and could not be sure whether the chicken I was eating was a deep-fried wing or a spoonful of consommé, would I still want it to nourish me? Or, like those rats, would I want to give up and disappear along with my ability to detect mouthfeel?  

“Taste by itself is a thin experience,” Spence admits. “Boring. Taste is nothing without smell to provide the flavors we love. By contrast, I think that there are some textures that are desirable in their own right. Embarrassingly for me, I just love the texture of Hi-Chew sweets from Taiwan!”

As a devotee of Gummi Bears, I find that admission perfectly reasonable. Still, he and Mouritsen both bring up a good point. “I would certainly hope not to lose my olfactory sense, which usually is the most important for food appreciation,” Mouritsen says.

So naturally, I am now thinking about my sense of smell.

Would I rather?