tactile experience: szechuan pepper

I’ve been thinking more and more about how important the feel of a drink is. I’m talking literally texturally. I’ve been coming at the idea from a few different directions for a while now, and have just realised that in all cases I’ve been playing with the same concept of messing with the sense of touch.

Most recently I started thinking about if there was a way to make something tickle a little, or give the impression of actual movement beyond carbonation bubbles, and I stumbled across an article about an experiment with Szechuan pepper. Szechuan pepper has a little guy in it called (hydroxyl alpha) sanshool which actually produces a tingling sensation akin to vibration. Apparently this vibration (measured in studies at a frequency of 50.0 Hz: Science20) can give your tongue and lips the impression that a drink of still water is actually fizzy.
This suggestion got me pretty excited, because I have been mulling over some ideas for a drink or drink/food pairing for a while, that might trick you into thinking a still drink was carbonated. Perhaps there is a sound track of the very light, tickling crackling sound of teeny bubbles, or the food, a dust on the rim of the glass or a mousse (emulating carbonation foam) on the top has something like pop rocks in it. Sanshool might solve this! So how to infuse/extract it? Can I find it in foods other than Szechuan pepper?

sound is important to your perception of flavour

Things taste different in planes to on the ground so when a chef curates an inflight menu, or a sommelier writes a wine list for an airline, they have to consider this as they select ingredients and flavour profiles. The altitude, background noise and dried nasal passages alters the way you interact with flavours. Salt perception is reduced, for example, but umami is enhanced. Apparently tomatoes taste amazing because of this, and in hindsight I think of all the very sad looking slices of “fresh” tomato that I have pushed aside on inflight meals. What if I was missing out on something amazing.

Studies have found that sound contributes immensely to our perception of flavour, with my favourite being the 2007 University of Leeds study (called “Bacon: the slice of life” omg) which was conducted to quantify just how important the crispiness of bacon is to the perfect BLT. This kinda thing is pretty common in commercial food science which I imagine often results in “new & improved” products on the regular. This Flavour Journal article references a Magnum icecream improvement that went wrong when they accidentally altered the way the chocolate coating cracks as you bite into it.

And then there’s ambient noise, like music. Studies have proven that music played at higher decibels influences people to perform activities faster, drinking in particular (ScienceDaily), which is a pretty neat trick that a lot of fast moving venues employ, but something that potentially inhibits your perception of the food and drink you’re consuming there. (Maybe that’s why some restaurants choose not to play any music at all?) There’s also evidence that that background music could be altering your palate too. Low pitched tones focus our palate on bitter flavours and high tones bring out sweeter flavours. You can test it out on yourself here: high pitch, low pitch. Apparently something like coffee or dark chocolate is a great thing to try it out with as it has distinctive sweet and bitter notes.

absence of flavour

I like to write ideas down to research later, so I often find snippets written down on the backs of receipts used as bookmarks or stuffed at the bottom of a bag I last used a few weeks ago. Then I get to decode my scrawl and try and figure out where the curiosity was focused.

This one was pretty interesting,
if you ate something that tastes like absolutely nothing would it enhance or dull an accompanying drink?

Turns out, there’s not much that tastes like nothing. Maybe just water that’s free from the chemicals our nose or tongue can detect, straight from a pure source. There is a neutral baseline, but it’s kinda gross so it killed this idea pretty fast. It’s our saliva. That’s why pure water tastes neutral. Our saliva is 98% water. The other 2% is made up of substances such as electrolytes, minerals like sodium and potassium, mucus, antibacterial compounds, and enzymes.

On a side note, a pretty neat trick for nosing spirits and wine is to smell your own skin to set a neutral baseline, (obviously this wouldn’t work if you use very fragrant soaps or perfumes.) This is helpful when you get overwhelmed with trying to pin down that one elusive note as well.

I think that potentially you could make a food very neutral flavoured, perhaps with gelatin, but if it were to enhance the drink then it would need to have some interesting textures going on, and that would be pretty hard to achieve while still retaining as little flavour as possible. Also, you’re trying to replicate the flavour of saliva, and I just don’t think you can sell that.