There's a new field of science called neurogastronomy that works to understand the neuro processes related to how we perceive food. In particular, scientists are interested in how we cognitively process texture to affect taste. Texture, or mouthfeel for scientists, is something that is not often actively noticed unless it is contrary to what you expect.
For most people, there is an expected tactile sensory experience associated with certain foods. However, when people talk about taste they often forget that how it feels in their mouths plays a role in their interpretation.
Yet most people will agree that if you add vanilla flavoring to a dish it somehow magically makes it creamier. So where are they gathering this sensory information and why? According to Ole Mouritsen, a food scientist and the author of Mouthfeel: How Texture Makes Taste, who spoke with The Splendid Table:
"Quite often in the brain, we bind different things together. If we have an experience that vanilla and creaminess belong together, then we meet vanilla in another context, we attempt to interpret it in the sense that it's creamy, even though it may be less creamy than it actually is. In this way, previous experiences and expectations frame the way we experience the taste of food."
Indeed, it appears that taste is as much developed by your culture as it is by the actual foods you consume. A good example of this is to look at the language associated with texture. In Japan, there are around 400 words that describe the texture of food.
However, in America we have only about 80. Naturally, if we don't have the linguistic capability to describe the feeling we are experiencing, we cannot experience it fully. Naturally, if we don't have the linguistic capability to describe the feeling we are experiencing, we cannot experience it fully.
Without Texture The World Tastes Bland
Much in the same way we are linguistically inhibited from fully experiencing taste, Americans are also not trained to consider it as a vital part of food. However, Mouritsen says that when they experimented to see if people could identify pureed foods solely based on their flavors, only 5 percent were able to do so.
"That usually is a big surprise because you cannot recognize it from the taste alone; you're actually using feeling in the mouth," he explains.
So it does appear that the variety of crunch, give, slipperiness, and chewiness plays a significant role in your enjoyment of whatever has landed on your plate.
So next time you think about the way your food tastes and try to describe it, forego descriptors like sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Instead, focus on how the food feels between your teeth and on your tongue. You may surprise yourself at what you discover.