Thursday, May 30, 2013

How we smell and taste

A recent article in the Guardian -- "What makes eating so satisfying?" -- summarized some of the research on how the brain and sensory organs work together to create flavor and enjoyment in eating and drinking. This fit very well with my recent project to learn more about human responses to aromas and smells as I have been writing here.

The author had several things to say about the complex pleasure of smelling and tasting wine.When you sniff a wine, the article points out, you perceive the most volatile aromas first, followed by those that are stirred up when you swirl the contents of your glass.

From the article: With wine, it is easy to confuse the two separate
entities of taste and smell. Photograph: David Levene
The complexity of the taste receptors on the tongue isn't quite what one learned in the past: the old "map" of taste buds has been superseded by recent research, says the Guardian. "The current consensus is that tastebuds all over the mouth carry receptors for all the basic tastes, it's just that there are higher concentrations of those four tastes in their designated areas."

The following example illustrates the article's point that perceptions of flavors in fact reside in the brain and on memories and learned reactions, citing Professor Barry Smith of London University's Centre for the Study of the Senses:
It is easy to confuse the two separate entities of taste and smell, and the latter holds great sway over how something will taste when it reaches your mouth. For example, westerners associate the aroma vanilla with sweetness (which is a taste – we can't actually smell sweet) so strongly that if vanilla is added to food, we'll think it tastes sweeter than it really is. But connections such as this are, adds Smith, "learned by the brain, not by you". If you are given a drink that has traces of sugar and vanilla that you wouldn't detect if they were on their own, the two together will taste sweet to you. Unless you're from Asia, where vanilla tends to be associated with salty food. 
The role of the brain in creating flavor is the subject of an entire book that I read in the course of my project: Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters by Gordon Shepherd. The connection made me find this example especially interesting.

Enjoyment of food also depends on visual cues, especially color, and on the sounds one hears while eating, says the Guardian:
In 2008, the Oxford professor Charles Spence won the Ig Nobel prize for proving the importance of noise when eating crunchy snacks. The study showed that people think Pringles "taste" stale when they're less crunchy, even though the taste and smell remain normal. He then put headphones on his munching participants, amplifying the sounds of their own crunching. The louder the crunch, the fresher and crisper the Pringles were reported to be. This is why, says Smith, "they make bags of crisps so noisy, to get the brain to think: fresh fresh fresh." 
Quite a fascinating article!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Food Artist

In today's Diner's Journal in the New York Times: a reference to the work of Pedro Diego Alvarado-Rivera, a nephew of the famous Diego Rivera. Alvarado-Rivera was born in 1956, and studied in France and his native Mexico.

 "Alvarado-Rivera has devoted most of his pictorial work to the representation of fruits, flowers, and vegetables blooming and ripening," says his brief biography on the webpage of a gallery where his works are on display (and where I found these images). While still-life works aren't always exactly food works, I think these images are appetizing.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Easy as boiling eggs?

I've always thought it was easy to hard-boil eggs and I've been dubious about long complicated explanations. I always put them in cold water, bring them to a boil, and leave them for 12 minutes.

Yesterday I had a shock when I started peeling the eggs I had boiled according to this method earlier in the day -- they were still soft, though done enough to eat. I forgot that I'm up here on a mountain at 8000 feet where water boils at a much lower temperature -- in the 190s not at around 212 like at home. Seems as though I should let them spend longer with the water at a rolling boil, and also leave them longer after turning off the burner. I'll give it a try.

I wonder what else is different, and I wonder why I never noticed this during prior trips. I guess I didn't happen to boil any eggs.

UPDATE: on my second try, I left the eggs for 5 mins on a slow boil and then 20 mins on simmer and they were perfect for making egg salad. No greenish rim around the yolk, either.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

In Aspen

First dinner at the apartment where we'll be staying for the next 3 weeks in Aspen, Colorado.
Same apartment where we stayed in June, 2011


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Looking forward to Paris

I read here and here (with illustrations) and lots of other places that beginning in 2009 you could get a Big Mac in the shopping center where you wait in line to get into the Louvre Museum. We are planning a trip, but will probably skip the burger.

Or as a cartoonist from San Diego put it:

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Garlic Smells

"Can I smell the pickles?" I used to ask when I was a small child and my father took me to a delicatessan. I only vaguely remember the deli, which we must have walked to (no car), but I remember the wooden pickle barrel, which was almost as tall as I was. The deli man would take off the barrel's lid, and I would put my nose near but not too near to the curing cucumbers and green tomatoes in greenish brine, and sniff -- garlic, dill, vinegar.

My father would ask for a half-sour pickle or pickled tomato and buy half a pound of corned beef, if my memory is right. The deli man knew which pickles had been in the barrel just the right amount of time. I think he and my father knew each other from some other time or place, but my memories are vague, except for the delicious smell from the pickles. Kosher-garlic-pickle smell is still noticeable in the blend of smells in a deli, along with the garlic from the pastrami.

Smell-resistant American culture in the past, like proper British culture, classified garlic as foreign and offensive, but Americans slowly got used to garlic as group after group of immigrants enjoyed it and then popularized it along with their cuisines. I guess garlic came in by a back door near the famous "golden door." Americans looked down on Italians at first, but soon learned to love pizza, spaghetti, and garlic bread, getting used to the cheesy, yeasty, herbal and garlicy aroma of Italian restaurants in the early 20th century.

Chinese restaurants became trendy in America several times, beginning, surprisingly, as early as the mid-19th century. Fresh garlic and ginger sauteed in hot oil are the now-familiar start of many stir-fried Chinese dishes, so the smell of garlic is definitely a component of the characteristic Chinese-restaurant aroma. Korean restaurants, which also use lots of garlic in strong-flavored dishes like kim chee, are growing in popularity now. Though I've never tried any of the famous foods from a Korean taco truck, I imagine a powerful aroma that's partly garlic and fermented cabbage and partly tortillas, maybe with a whiff of hot lard for frying as I would expect in a taqueria.

"The first thing you smell at the Huy Fong Foods factory in suburban Los Angeles is the overwhelming aroma of garlic, a key ingredient in the company’s signature product: Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce," wrote Caleb Hannan in "Sriracha Hot Sauce Catches Fire, Yet 'There's Only One Rooster,'" in Bloomberg Business week recently. "Last year, the company sold 20 million bottles." Originally part of Thai cuisine, sriracha sauce in America has become synonymous with the Huy Fong LA version and its rooster logo. The popularity of garlic-heavy Thai food and above all sriracha sauce is a recent thing in America.

Japanese cooking isn't known for garlic, but a Japanese friend told me that families there use garlic in cooking only on Friday and Saturday night to avoid offensive garlic breath when they go to work or to school on weekdays. Though not a traditional flavor in the type of sushi that's very popular here, garlic is used in raw beef dishes in Japan and in a few other foods. Similarly, garlic isn't a dominant flavor in the Indian food that Americans are accustomed to, but has its place in some regions. Maybe the garlic-flavored preparations from these cultures will reach American diners some day.

French cuisine dominated fine dining in America in the 19th and much of the 20th century. Garlic was a pretty muted element in French haute cuisine, and I suspect that even chefs who trained in France tended to avoid garlic aromas when adapting their cuisine to America or England. But maybe not completely -- consider this:
 "La Cuisine Pratique [a recipe collection from 1902 used at the cooking classes held at the Cordon Bleu school in Paris] occasionally contains stories about chefs. One, 'Le Secret de Francatelli,' discusses the salads he prepared during his tenure at the Reform Club in London. A customer commented on the wonderful aroma that wafted from the salad when it arrived at the table. The secret? Garlic, crushed in the chef's teeth while he tossed the salad. The smell of his breath helped create that indefinable aroma. The piece ends by saying that the customer thanked Francatelli profusely, but remarked that perhaps he would not admire the salads as much in the future." (from Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession by Amy B. Trubek, p. 28)
The smell of garlic has a complicated reputation. If you eat garlic, some people believe, mosquitos will avoid you; maybe this works. Italian mothers once burdened their children with necklaces of garlic. This made the children unpopular, but the mothers insisted because they thought the smell prevented colds or other diseases. In Eastern European folklore, garlic cloves and garlic breath or body odor functioned not only as an effective vampire repellant, but also as a charm against the evil eye and other malicious spirits or devils. (The Andaman Islanders that I wrote about aren't the only ones whose spirits can smell you. For lots more garlic superstitions and history, check this American Folklore page.)

Garlic can be loved or hated. If your mother ate garlic before you were born, you probably like it better than if she did not: garlic, in a prenatal diet, can be detected in the amniotic fluid, as can other types of flavor/aroma. The presence of garlic has an influence on "after-birth preference lasting into childhood. ... the neural system for the basic hedonic responses to taste, in terms of attraction or repulsion, is in the brain stem and is active in the newborn. The learning of these preferences in utero and their emotional expression are therefore incorporated into this hardwired system." (from Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why it Matters by Gordon M. Shepherd,  p. 234)

Photo from Wikimedia commons. This post also appears on my travel blog.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

The Spirits Can Smell You

Illustration from Radcliffe-Brown's
The Andaman Islanders
Note: My project on aromas and smells and how we perceive them has themes that match both my food blog and my travel blog, so I have decided to post in both places.

Andaman islanders around 100 years ago lived in tropical forests and on the shore. They located their camps seasonally, according to what food was available: prey like turtles, wild pigs, and dugongs, and plants like yams and taro. In the forests, they believed, lived various spirits; some of these were what remained of dead people, and some were the controllers of natural phenomena like lightening, storms, earthquakes.

Between 1906 and 1908, anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-Brown lived in the Andaman Islands which at the time belonged to British India. He reported his observations and interpretations of Andaman culture in the book The Andaman Islanders, published originally in 1922, and reissued several times since then. It's a fascinating classic study from what I believe to be the early days of anthropology, and I loved reading it. I was especially searching for information on aromas and odors and what they meant to the islanders -- a topic for which this book is noted. This blog post is based on my reading.

Forest spirits, like the islanders themselves, were extremely responsive to odors, and the islanders were very careful not to allow inappropriate odors to anger the spirits. In addition to being conscious of odors, the islanders were also highly aware of the colors of flowers and fish and of the changes in light and darkness at night and in the forest.

Radcliffe-Brown recorded many stories that illustrated the spirits' reactions to odors. One story concerned Pulaga, a spirit of wind, who caused violent storms that came from the sea. Pulaga hated the smell of burning wax from beehives where the islanders gathered honey. The smell or sight of burning wax could cause cyclones so violent that jungle trees could be uprooted for miles, destroying paths and hunting grounds. At times islanders also used techniques for burning wax to placate Pulaga and stop a storm. The season for gathering and burning wax was just before cyclone season, so Pulaga's behavior was somewhat predictable. (p. 153-157, 357)

Radcliffe-Brown writes of the ferocity of these storms:
"The wind is sometimes so violent as to tear every leaf from the trees in its path. While the storm lasts there is danger to the lives of the natives. An old man recounted to me how on the occasion of a violent cyclone he and the others of his village took refuge in the sea and on the open shore from the danger of falling trees, and remained there till the violence of the storm had abated. ... If a storm lasts for any length of time the natives, who are unable or afraid to go out hunting, have to do without food until it is over." (p. 352)
In early times, a spirit named Bilika had smelled the mouths of the islanders' ancestors to see if they had been eating his food. If he discovered the smell of his food he slit their throats. Another spirit named Nila could smell a human being who came near his tree and would come out and kill him with his knife. Smells were always associated with danger, magic, ancestors, and spirits. The smell of a certain red paint could cure disease, so a sick person would paint his upper lip in order to inhale the aroma. (pp. 200, 163, 268, 179)

Some spirits were especially sensitive to the smell of a particular green plant. A person who handled the plant or prepared it by scraping it while it was in contact with his thigh acquired its smell. This smell could cause him to get rheumatism. Also, a person who wanted to hunt sea turtles would avoid this plant as the turtles would be frightened by the smell. Other trees had helpful smells: one small tree's leaves could be used as a bed for a sick person; in inhaling the aromas of these leaves he would be cured. (p. 180-182, 268)

Spirits also reacted to cooking odors and body odors. Jungle spirits hated the smell of roasting pork, but didn't mind the smell of boiling pork. They could detect the odor of a person who had eaten either turtle or pork -- the smell was, in their view, a heated smell, and could be disguised or made unrecognizable by certain techniques of body painting with a special white clay that cooled off the person who had eaten the offensive food. (Radcliffe-Brown himself said he couldn't detect the difference in body odor of people who had eaten different meats.) (p. 161, 312)

The odor of the body was connected to the "virtue or energy of the person" and with manifestations of the food being eaten -- thus was a source of danger. Foods conveyed a variety of dangers to those who ate them; the most dangerous foods were dugong, a particular fish, certain snakes, and fats from several animals. Pork, turtle and turtle eggs and a few others were less dangerous. Vegetables were safest. (p. 312, 269)

The islanders were aware of many sensory variations in the seasons, which included hot seasons, a rainy season, and a season of cyclones. They named the seasons for the trees and plants that flower at that time. (p. 119)
"In the jungles of the Andamans it is possible to recognize a distinct succession of odours during a considerable part of the year as one after another the commoner trees and lianas come into flower. when, for example, the species of Sterculia called ... jeru comes into blossom it is almost impossible to get away from the smell of it except on the seashore when the wind is from the sea. Moreover these various flowers give their scent to the honey that is made from them, so that there is also a succession of differently flavoured kinds of honey. The Andamanese have therefore adopted an original method of marking the different periods of the year by means of the different odoriferous flowers that are in bloom at different times. Their calendar is a calendar of scents." (p. 311-312) 
Each season offered different foods, which contributed to the overall sensory perception of the seasons. When "important roots and some of the most prized fruits" were in season, during the cool season and the following hot time, the natives did not consider lizards, snakes and civet-cats to be in season; the pigs were breeding and thus also not eaten. Honey was abundant in the hot season. Jungle animals and fish were more plentiful in the rainy season when vegetables and honey were scarcer. Certain spirits were associated with these seasons, during which the winds blew predominantly from a particular direction. All these factors affected the way the islanders categorize and named their seasons. (p. 353)

Cultural variation in categories of aromas and perception of them are a topic of most writers who explore the topic of smells. Radcliffe-Brown gave a fascinating account of the aromatic and sensory world of the Andaman Islands and the people who lived there.