I’m Sara, and I’ve been a picky eater all my life.
More often than not, the thing that can completely and totally put me off a food is its texture. If it’s too slimy, too creamy, too-any-one-thing, I’m out, no matter how good it may taste. I decided I had to figure it out for good: What determines my strong aversion, and will I ever get over it?
Sybil Kapoor, author of Sight Smell Touch Taste Sound A New Way to Cook, confirmed my suspicion that the way a food feels has a huge impact on whether we enjoy a meal. “It is our sense of touch that is vital for culinary enjoyment, from the moment we hold something with our hands to the final swallow,” she writes. “It allows us to savor the temperature, taste, and flavor of food as well as the sound food makes as we eat.”
Think about how it feels to bite into a piece of beef jerky versus steak. Despite the fact that they have the same source material, the former is densely chewy and demands that you spend some time masticating every morsel—that you allow its salty funk to sit and unfurl on your palette. Meanwhile, the latter is tender, less funky and more unctuous, nearly melting after a moment on your tongue. As Kapoor explains, “different textures within a dish release their tastes in different ways in our mouths.” If it weren’t for the jerky and steak’s wildly differing consistencies, they’d be far more difficult to distinguish.
Leathery jerky and even custardy scrapple, I can handle. But how does this explain why I love most mushrooms, but just can't choke down a wood ear; or why my ideal dessert is a bowl of Chex, not ice cream? According to Linda Bartoshuk, PhD, a psychologist and Bushnell Professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Florida, supertasters, or people born with more tastebuds, may be physiologically more sensitive to a food’s mouthfeel. In the same way that they experience flavors more intensely, so, too, do they experience textures to a greater degree. A supertaster is not only particularly sensitive to bitter foods (like broccoli, specific mushrooms, or coffee), but will perceive a fatty food to be twice as creamy than a regular taster will.
Additionally, Kapoor illustrates the power cultural and social associations have on our preferences. “In China and Japan, different textures are valued much more highly than in the West,” she writes, using the popular Japanese snack of ultra-chewy dried squid as an example. Compare this to the American image of “healthy” food (crunchy and raw) or, perhaps, what we believe “fancy” food to feel like (silky and smooth, like a fine mousse). These larger cultural and social associations undeniably fuel our personal texture preferences, even if they ultimately lead to overly broad—and sometimes incorrect—characterizations of food.
I’m definitely guilty of allowing texture to eclipse all other aspects of a meal, with little thought given to what I might be missing out on in the process: namely, the closeness, the special kind of connection that happens only over a shared meal. Despite my squeamishness, I'll be trying one of Kapoor's texture experiments this weekend (excerpted below)—focusing not on how squishy a food might feel, but how delicious it will taste. Here's hoping that soon I'll be slurping bowls of ramen—bouncy wood ears and hairlike noodles and all—with my boyfriend.
Textures often merge into one another and the most fragile jellied textures can melt into liquid regardless of whether they’re a wobbly plum jelly (jello) or the set juices within a pork pie. However, there are many other jellied textures, including unctuous, gelatinous-textured meat, such as pulled pork; crunchy cloud ear fungus; slippery tapioca; or dense agar-agar set sweets. Some even verge on the chewy, such as marshmallows or Turkish delight. In all cases, care is required when matching jelly-like textures with other foods. Complementary soft ingredients are needed when a jelly is going to turn to liquid in the mouth, such as lychees in a lemongrass jelly, and denser-textured ingredients are needed when the dominant food retains its consistency, such as pulled pork within a soft bun.
Make a home-made jelly, but before mixing in the gelatine, set aside a little of the liquid. Once the jelly has set, compare the taste and feel of the flavoured liquid to the set jelly.
As with all textures, chewiness can be good or bad depending on the context. In a toffee, for example, chewiness is wonderful, as it slowly releases its delicious caramel buttery flavours, but the chewiness of a garlic-buttered snail is unbearable for someone who dislikes eating molluscs. Chewy ingredients can be used to prolong or highlight flavours in a dish. A chewy pizza base, for example, allows the eater to enjoy the different tastes and textures of its topping, while chunky strips of candied orange peel in rough-cut marmalade underline the bitter-sweet orange taste of the marmalade jelly. However, tastes and flavours change with prolonged mastication, so it’s wise to consider the final taste and texture on any dish when introducing a chewy element.
Make a simple burger with good chopped beef, salt and pepper and grill alongside a sirloin steak. Compare the flavour and texture of the two.
For the purposes of this book, I’m including crunchy, crisp and brittle textures within this category. At first glance, hardness might seem an unpromising texture in cooking. However, in moderation, hard-textured elements can add excitement by introducing textural contrast and flavours that are released at different rates into a dish. Among the most commonly used hard-textured foods are nuts and crunchy vegetables such as raw carrots, and celery. Brittle-textured foods, such as vegetable crisps, filo pastry and caramel, can add a surprising lightness to a dish, while crackling textures, such as bacon fat, pork crackling and Melba toast, are often used as a textural contrast in richly flavoured dishes.
Leave a celery heart in your refrigerator until it turns bendy, and then eat a stem alongside a fresh crisp stem of celery.
Adapted slightly from Sight Smell Touch Taste Sound A New Way to Cook by Sybil Kapoor (Pavilion Books).