Taste and smell seem like the only senses we need to appreciate food, however, the sense that plays a play much bigger role in enjoyment of food, is auditory. A fact that very few of us consider, but like Pavlov’s famous experiment proved, we all respond to the bell or the ding of the microwave oven, the plop of the spoon in the curry or the chop of the knife on the cutting board. Cooking sounds help us to know how hard, soft, raw or ripe a food is. The crackle of crust on a well baked bread will tell you how it is going to taste. The sound of how wine pours out in your glass, the din of a restaurant is all part of the experience.
Sonic seasoning has been at play in our lives forever and we almost never notice it. Those who do, have found a way to help make themselves some money. Ever notice how advertisements play a loud cracking sound when they show you a chip being eaten, or the subtle muffled snap of a chocolate dipped wafer finger? These sounds draw you in, you expect the same crunch when you buy a new box of Pringles or when you snap a Kit Kat bar. Advertisers and restaurateurs know that consumers now seek to buy into experiences rather than products, and want a more stimulating experience when they are out dining. This is why the music played in a restaurant, the noise level surrounding the unsuspecting diner changes the way he or she tastes the food. It is the invisible garnish to the dish.
Professor Charles Spence, head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University, has been studying how the brain processes information delivered by our senses. His research says sounds play much bigger role in enjoyment of food than we think.
The sonic seasoning of food, like the sound of a sizzling steak, the gurgle and whistle of a coffee machine build up our expectation of the dish to be consumed. All makes a difference on how we eat. In his book,
The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining, Spence highlights the association between particular sounds and tastes. He finds certain soundscapes enhance one taste higher than the other, like eating a bar of chocolate to a song while listening to a twinkly higher frequency song will make it taste sweeter, while the same chocolate bar eaten to low frequency sounds like a musical piece with brassy, bass heavy notes will amp up the bitter notes of the same chocolate.
There are other researchers looking at how flavors are affected by sound, some have even found that the quantity of food consumed varies depending on the ambient sound. Loud spaces, playing music above 90 decibels have clients drinking a lot more than places where music below 85 decibels is played. No wonder we binge drink, numbed to the taste of alcohol when listening to rock music. Eating in an airplane also has us reaching out for salty nuts or spicy curries to wake up our taste buds numbed from incessant airplane engine roar.
While there are more connections being strung between how food sounds when it is cooked, served and eaten and how we react to it, at different stages. For most of us, on a daily basis, even our homes have their own variations of sonic seasoning. The pressure cooker whistles, the grinding of the chutney, the sizzle of a water being sprayed to cool down a hot tava, we are always experiencing flavors even before we eat.
Sharon Fernandes is a journalist based in Delhi.