SYNAESTH-EAT-SIA: A Multi-Sensory Dining Primer

One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating. — Luciano Pavarotti

The five senses – sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch – are our lens and filter to the world around us. They are the membrane between what we think, what we choose to do, and what we experience. Without them life would be, well, senseless. To even contemplate what it would be like to live without them is nearly impossible.

Each day, we are given a chance to indulge our senses, all of them, with one of the only constant punctuation marks in life: eating. Why not take that necessary, and vastly enjoyable experience, and turn it into an opportunity to tickle our curiosities, expand our worldview, and stretch our sensory perceptions of the environment in which we find ourselves?

Thinking about the act of eating, and how truly multi-faceted it is, we can reinvigorate an experience that we so often take for granted.

So, what does is mean to engage all the senses when we eat? Where does the concept of “play” fit in to the eating experience? And how might we bring a multi-sensory approach to dining into our own homes? This blog seeks to explain some of the aspects of multi-sensory dining and at least begin to answer these complex questions.

Food: The Apple of Your Eye

You’ve heard it before: “we eat with our eyes.” And it’s true. Color, plating, crockery, portion size, all of these things are crucial to how we perceive our food, and what expectations we have of any given dining experience.

Thinking about it from a health-perspective, it makes sense that we would place special value on the way our food looks. (The more vibrant and colorful the fruit or vegetable, the more nutrients it contains. The more grey or discolored the piece of meat, the higher the likelihood that consuming it will make you ill.) In addition to informing our sense of self-preservation, the visual qualities of food also affect our desire, appetite, and even our assumptions of how it will taste.

(Culinary thought experiment: There are two tomato soups in front of you, each using the exact same ingredients in the exact same proportions. One of them is in a standard cooking pot, just pulled hot off the stovetop; the other is steaming inside of a French Press. What different expectations do you have of these two supposedly identical soups? As the plunger sifts through the hot tomato pulp, do you anticipate a creamier, smoother soup from the French Press? As a wooden spoon stirs the soup in the pot, does the release of excess steam make that particular soup appear fresher, more comfortable, or familiar? How does the presentation change your expectation of the food’s texture, quality, culinary creativity, and taste?)

The color of food does more than indicate how fresh or nutritional it might be. Recent research into the world of taste and color associations has shown that many people associate certain colors with specific flavors intuitively.

One of the groups exploring the world of multi-sensory dining is Kitchen Theory, a collaborative gastronomic project, equal parts science lab and meticulously curated dining experience. At their multi-sensory dinner series, Synaesthesia, they used the results from a recent study[1] as the creative springboard for one of the meal’s courses.

For the course, diners were asked to associate specific colors and tastes. They were served a red, black, white, and green sphere, and asked to put them in order – sweet, sour, salty, bitter. Depending on how they associated the colors and tastes, diners either confirmed their assumptions, or surprised themselves with an unexpected flavor experience.

How do you associate those colors and flavors? (The most common response from the study is printed at the bottom of this page.)[2]

It’s not just color that affects how we feel about our food. Symmetry on the plate, the angles at which our food is placed relative to the diner, the number of elements in a dish – all of these things contribute to our perceptions of our food.

(Great British Chefs, is a fantastic resource if you are interested in learning more about this inexact science. Here is one of their articles specifically about food presentation.)

Play With Your Food

Have you ever squeezed a loaf of freshly baked bread? How crisply or softly the crust crackles changes our expectations of taste, and mouth-feel. Whether or not steam is released, as the loaf is broken contributes yet another textural layer to our expectation: hot vs. cool.

But it isn’t just the texture of the food that affects our taste expectation and perception; the textures surrounding our food changes how we experience it as well. For instance, whether you run your fingers over sandpaper or velvet while eating can change how crunchy, salty, sweet, smooth, or soft you perceive your food to be.

It is important to note: these textures aren’t actually changing the flavors present in the food. They are changing what flavors are more pronounced in our perceptions of the food. In fact, that is the whole idea behind multi-sensory dining: how can we assert some control over what tastes we notice?

As research in this area is just in its nascent stages, there is a world of possibility regarding what may or may not work – play is encouraged! Does running your fingers through sand while eating an oyster make it taste more briny? How about drinking an old world wine next to a potpourri of bark, dirt, and leaves from the forest floor – do the earth tones in the wine become more prevalent?

These kinds of questions, arbitrary as they may seem, explore exactly the curiosities that multi-sensory dining seeks to explain. The more we understand about how the senses are truly interconnected, the more we are able to craft dining experiences to draw out and exaggerate certain sensations, tastes, and pleasures. So do some experimenting of your own! With an open mind, you might be surprised what actually works…

Listen To Your Chard (When it’s Calling for You)

Finally, perhaps the most intriguing element of the multi-sensory dining experience, sound (yes, sound) has the power to suggest temperature and freshness, heighten a feeling of being transported, and even cue the palate to experience enhanced flavors.

(Another quick thought experiment: Imagine closing your eyes and snapping two different carrots. One snaps firm and loud, the other soft and quiet. Which carrot would you choose? Most would say the louder snap, as this carrot would likely be fresher and contain more of the nutrients our bodies need.)

“Sonic seasoning” expands on this idea. There are two basic approaches to pairing sound and food. The first might be called a “Pavlovian” approach, pairing food with sounds that recall specific imagery or memories to alter our experience. An easy way to think about this is to use cultural cuisine as a framework. For example, if you are making tapas, play Spanish music and suit the atmosphere to the “mood” of your food.

Another way to think about this, admittedly a bit more “out-of-the-box” thinking, would be to pair sounds with the food that do more than hint at cultural cuisine, but cue specific imagery as well. An easy example here would be to pair some soothing ocean sounds with a fresh ceviche, or raw oysters. Or you could do something similar to the experiment conducted by Charles Spence and Heston Blumenthal, where they manipulated the dominant flavor in bacon and eggs ice cream by playing either farm sounds, or sizzling bacon sounds respectively.

The second approach to “sonic seasoning” explores more of the instinctual, involuntary responses that our bodies have to sound in relation to taste. For instance, did you know that high frequencies have a tendency to pull sweet flavors out of food, whereas lower frequencies tend to enhance more bitter aspects? (Don’t believe me? Try the “Bittersweet Symphony” with a piece of dark chocolate, or cup of coffee. Remember to use headphones for a more noticeable result!)

This type of “sonic seasoning” in particular opens up a world of possibility when it comes to its practical applications. Could one reduce their sugar intake by simply playing the right noises while they eat and drink? Can designing a playlist to shift periodically between high and low frequencies exaggerate the complexities of a meal? The short answer is yes. But exactly why isn’t clear.

All of this information suggests that when it comes to food, we’ve only just scratched the surface of what constitutes the eating experience. Personally, I’m not surprised by the fact that our senses intertwine, informing and affecting one another in complex ways. (I mean, thinking of music’s emotional power specifically, the idea that sound can conjure image, and sensation seems natural.)

But what does blow my mind, is that it seems like some degree of synesthesia is natural for everyone. And that with enough research, we may be able to assert some degree of control over how our perceptions of the outside world affect what we taste. It’s like a culinary Jedi mind trick!

So next time you’re having friends over for dinner, maybe consider putting some thought into a playlist that compliments the food as well as that wine you’ve been saving. Think about how your crockery changes your guests’ experience. (How heavy is your flatware? Does your salad bowl have a story behind it?) And most importantly, keep an open mind as to how the act of sharing a meal might engage all your senses – I promise, the pleasure you draw from the experience will only be heightened.

[1] Cross-cultural Differences in Crossmodal Correspondences Between Basic Tastes and Visual Features, Xiaoang Wan, Andy T. Woods, Jasper J. F. van den Bosch, Kirsten J. McKenzie, Carlos Velasco and Charles Spence, 2014

[2] Red=Sweet; Green=Sour; Black=Bitter; White=Salty

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