A Symphony of Flavours


A Symphony of Flavours

Illustration: Shivali Devalkar

Sitting one evening at a local food truck, waiting for my meal to arrive, I watch the chef conjure a plate of soul food. With the wok on the high flame, I observe the chef orchestrating a symphony as the onions sizzle in the oil, soon joined by the cabbage and the carrots, dancing to the tunes of the spatula, belting mild hisses of elation. It is time for the splash of chilli sauce, soya sauce, and ketchup to go in to bring the festivities to a halt before the grand finale. Each new sound sends a signal to my brain to look forward to a scrumptious plate of noodles to satiate my soul.

Finally, my plate arrives and I twirl my way into the noodles taking a mouthful. The soft noodles mutter to the chattering crunch of the carrot and cabbage. I alternate the bite of the noodles with a sip of chilled bubbly Coke, and with every bite I silently toast the truck chef for gratifying my hunger pangs after a hard day’s work.

Food is one of the few experiences, which touches all five senses. While taste, sight, and smell are commonly associated with food, sound is usually the least talked about. The interplay of sound in these processes helps enhance our food experience. It swings both ways: Of course, the sound of food creates a perception for the one devouring the meal, but it also guides a chef to become a better cook.

There’s so much that’s unexplored in the area of food and sound – although now it is a topic of avid research. Two years ago, the Guardian wrote about “sonic seasoning”, where sound affects the taste of what we eat. During a taste test of chocolate, the writer reported that when she listened “to a low-pitched sound, my taste awareness somehow shrinks to the back of my tongue and focuses on the chocolate’s bitter elements. When I switch to a high frequency, the floodgates to sweetness open up and my entire mouth kicks back in a warm, sugary bath. It is a curious sensation because it doesn’t feel, to me at least, as if the chocolate tastes different. It is more that the sounds are twisting my grey matter, changing how it perceives the taste.”

But even without these highfalutin, science-y experiments, you know how the sound of food can affect the brain. I take pride in using auditory cues when I cook. Sound can help you understand how far out you are in your cooking process.

Sound plays an integral role in the perception of the texture of the dish. The crunch of the salad uplifts the taste while limp lettuce can put you off.

Back in my kitchen, I’m the director of a bizarre yet mesmerising musical, which preludes delicious memories. The knife tapping on the chopping board tirelessly creating the characters of my next creation, the pressure cooker whistling away motivating the dal for its debut with the crackling tadka, the onion tomato masala cooing in the oil bath yearning for the koftas, as they crackle in the fryer, and the clinking of the spatula against the pot assisting me as the recital progresses. The last movement features the final clean up with the percussion of the vessels in the sink.

Sound plays an integral role in the perception of the texture of the dish. The crunch of the salad uplifts the taste while limp lettuce can put you off. A snap of a carrot is a yeah and an undercooked brittle baked potato is a nay. Listen to your food: Your ears can gauge the crunch of the apple, snapping of the bell pepper in the salad, exploding of the pepper in your mouth, candy crushing, splash of the chicken in the curry or the cracking of crisp chips. The brain is all ready to pick up signals from the surroundings to start mapping the perception from the first bite.

The sound of food extends beyond this, our reaction after we consume food. Think about the most unforgettable scene from 1989’s When Harry Met Sally. Meg Ryan (Sally) and Billy Crystal (Harry) are sitting in the diner, when Sally suddenly starts to moan, roll her eyes, tilts her head to prove the point of a fake orgasm, leaving Harry embarrassed and the lady seated on the next table wanting to eat what she ate!

That spoofy little scene goes to the nub of a truism. Good food is orgasmic. Every chef waits to hear the sounds of satisfaction, the satiated soul yearning for more as his creations are devoured. However, the yin and yang always co-exist. On one hand we have a food orgasm, and on the other, horrific burping or chomping.

If you hear closely, you will hear symphonies being conjured every day as food traverses from the kitchen to the table forming memories to treasure. Good food can sing an unforgettable melody, all you need to do is listen.