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By Celia Woolfrey (@towerofturtles)     19 Aug 2016

How the emerging field of neurogastronomy is opening diners’ eyes to the way our sense of taste works

Heston Blumenthal knew exactly what he was doing when he invented his Sound of the Sea dish almost a decade ago for the Fat Duck in Bray, England. As well as a beautifully arranged plate of seafood, diners were served with an iPod that played a recording of crashing surf and seagulls. It turns out that seafood really does have more taste when eaten to the sound of ocean waves and sea breezes.

‘I did a series of tests with Charles Spence at Oxford University, which revealed that sound can enhance the sense of taste,’ the chef says. ‘We ate an oyster while listening to the sea and it tasted stronger and saltier than when we ate it while listening to barnyard noises, for example.’

Since then, Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford’s Somerville College, has worked with chefs including Ferran Adria and Charles Michel to understand the interactions between vision, odor and taste perception, which is changing the way we view our senses.

Among Spence’s discoveries are that strawberry mousse tastes 10 percent sweeter when served from a white container than a black one, and that shoppers in Britain and Colombia are more willing to choose a juice with a smiley concave line on the label compared to one with a frown-like convex line. Touch, sound and vision are the ‘forgotten’ flavor senses, according to Spence.

Chefs and restaurateurs are making use of this knowledge in very different ways. Chef Paul Pairet, the man behind Ultraviolet in Shanghai, creates a full-on, immersive experience for diners using mystery and anticipation to heighten the effect. Guests—a maximum of 10—are picked up by a van with tinted windows and driven to an unknown destination, a specially converted former industrial building. Once seated, they enjoy a 20-course tasting menu with music and other sounds from multichannel speaker systems, lights, scents, cool air breezes and 360-degree wall projections to intensify the taste of the food.

Pairet argues that how we perceive flavor is how we expect to, and is due to something he calls psycho taste, ‘which is everything about the taste, except the taste. It’s the expectation and the memory, the mind over the palate. It’s all the factors that influence our perception of taste. See a tomato, and your mind will call upon your memory to tell you its taste. This subconscious outcome is at work all around us.’

Blind tasting

So what happens when you remove one of the ‘flavor senses’ such as sight? Yep, our senses of taste and smell compensate, a phenomenon explored by Dine in the Dark experiences such as the one at the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit in Bangkok.

Guests report their sense of taste being amplified many times over, or the strange sensation of suddenly becoming intensely aware of the smell of the wine in the glass they’re holding in the darkness.

Diners start in the hotel’s BarSu, where they’re briefed by their guide for the evening on what to expect and can choose which menu they’d like to taste (Asian, Western, vegetarian or a special surprise menu) without being told the dishes on them.

Hands on one another’s shoulders and drinks in their other hand, they’re then led in a line into a pitch-black private dining room, where they’re helped into their chair.

‘At Dine in the Dark at the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit, it’s 100 percent dark in that we do not cover your eyes or put anything over your face,’ says Jay Smith, consultant manager. ‘And there’s no cheating—we ask you to remove any luminous watches and switch off mobile phones beforehand. Another unique part of the experience is that we employ visually impaired hosts, they are blind in both eyes. They are also bilingual, some of them multilingual. They’re all currently students at university, with some of them playing sports, some also playing music, some having other jobs as well. So a big part of Dine in the Dark is that you meet people you might not normally come across.’

Robert Wittebrood, director of food and beverage at the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit says, ‘Learning how to deal with utter darkness is a playful, sensory experience in which the highlight is the food. We offer food that is sweet, sour, spicy, crispy, hot, cold; in every single course we want to offer something that is unique and memorable, and we play with all these different elements.’

After the meal, diners are sometimes surprised to find that they weren’t eating what they thought they were. ‘Once you’ve had your four-course experience, you come outside and we reveal what you’ve had,’ says Wittebrood. ‘With our latest menu the guests say the food is fantastic, and they’re also curious that what they’ve tasted is different to what they thought they were eating.’

Indian actress Manasi Joshi Roy who dined in the dark at the Sheraton earlier this year, says, ‘The hostess comes out with an iPad with photos of the food you just ate, and it’s rather funny to figure that the thing you thought was some sort of seafood was actually a mushroom. Or that you correctly identified your dessert as crème brûlée.’

‘It was one of the most overwhelming experiences of my life,’ she adds. ‘Dine in the Dark opened my eyes.’

Share your dine in the dark experiences with #momentumtravel

Photo: Getty

Celia Woolfrey
Celia Woolfrey (@towerofturtles)

Celia Woolfrey first went to school in Australia, then traveled from Sydney to Southampton by boat via the Pacific Islands. She now lives in London and works as a journalist, editor and author.

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