Posted on behalf of Ewen Callaway
Four egg yolk-sized orbs sit on my plate, cradled by translucent spoons. Each sphere is a different colour: red, green, black, white. The server explains that each represents one of the four tastes, salty, sour, sweet and bitter. But which colour goes with which taste?
Thus began a recent synaesthesia-inspired lunch, hosted by London-based Kitchen Theory. This “collaborative gastronomic project” and think tank is dishing up the meals through April in their West London space. The project came about after founder and head chef Jozef Youssef saw a talk on the blending of the senses.
There are many types of synaesthesia; I once wrote about a woman who felt disgust when she touched denim. Most common is an association of colours with letters, numbers and words. Researchers debate the neural basis of the phenomenon: one popular theory holds that it occurs as a result of neural cross-wiring between sensory areas and other brain regions. About 4% of the population experiences some form of synaesthesia, and there is some evidence that the experiences can be induced.
Youssef’s goal was not necessarily to conjure such feelings, but to remind his guests that we eat with our eyes, ears, noses (try telling the difference between a lemon and lime with your nose pinched) as well as mouths. And to serve a great meal: Youssef has worked at the Fat Duck, British chef Heston Blumenthal’s temple of molecular gastronomy.
He mostly succeeded. I guessed that the white sphere was salty, and when I plopped it into my mouth I got a savoury, spicy hit of raita, the yoghurt-based Indian condiment. Green I took for sour, working on its association with tart apple-flavoured candies. That spoon contained a more delicious concoction of lime, fennel and coriander. I wrongly associated red with bitter — it was sweetened cranberry and rose — and the black Guinness and coffee emulsion with sweet.
Safranal spritzers, smoke-filled bags
The synaesthesia associations didn’t work as well with the other dishes, though all were impeccably prepared. A saffron-infused white miso velouté entitled “The Sight and Sound of Flavour” was served with a spritzer of safranal, a prime organic compound of saffron, while calming panpipe and xylophone music played over the speakers. My lunch companion said the music made her eat more slowly, while I scarfed my soup, preferring its aromatic complexity to the one-note spritzer.
The main course arrived in a smoke-filled plastic bag. (The smell reminded me of campfire meals I enjoyed as a kid.) Here Youssef’s goal was to show how language triggers expectations about taste. Its title, “Born in Papua New Guinea,” was a play on words: the dish is guinea fowl served over a sweetcorn risotto. My vegetarian alternative, which also arrived in a bag, was an exquisite tempura egg with a cracker-crunchy shell, velvety smooth white and just-set yolk.
Before dessert, diners watched a video demonstrating a psychological phenomenon called the McGurk effect. When someone makes the sound “ba-ba-ba” but moves their lips as if they were saying “va-va-va”, our brains fool us into hearing “va-va-va”. However, beyond its name (“Believe Nothing of What You Hear”), I’m not sure how the McGurk effect related to the thing itself — chocolate mousse studded with toffee wedges and surrounded by caramel corn, pickled celery, a passion fruit sauce and popping candy. No matter. It was the most fun I’ve had eating dessert, and the sweet, salty, sour and…well…explosive notes offered much-needed contrast to the richness of the mousse.
I don’t mean to knock Kitchen Theory’s concept, which is full of fascinating side notes. The meal was developed with the help of experimental psychologist Charles Spence (whose 2014 The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining is reviewed here) and Richard Cytowic, a neurologist interested in synaesthesia and author of The Man Who Tasted Shapes. I was just too busy enjoying the food to taste colours and sounds – let alone shapes.
Listen in to NeuroPod Multisensory Meals, Kerri Smith’s acute take on neurogastronomic dining.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.