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Tips to enhance meals and food preparation through the senses

Colorful Scarves
Colorful Scarves
Catherine Al-Meten

Enhancing eating rituals through the senses

“Through seven figures come sensations for a man; there is hearing for sounds, sight for the visible, nostril for smell, tongue for pleasant or unpleasant tastes, mouth for speech, body for touch, passages outwards and inwards for hot or cold breath. Through these come knowledge or lack of it.” – Hippocrates

Our senses enable us to touch, recall, connect, and feel some of our deepest emotions. When we use our memory to recall something from the past—a person, an experience, a place, it is often through our senses that we are stirred. Be it a the sounds of a Chopin nocturne or the aroma of fresh bread baking, we are awakened to something that stirs us. Food is an essential part of our human experience, and yet sometimes we forget how sensual and beautiful our relationship with food can be. We get so caught up in eliminating things from our diet or in treating food and meal preparation as a nuisance, that we often lose our connection to the beauty and pleasure of the rituals and traditions we have in our relationship with food. We live in an area that is rich in resources and is the center of a number of food industries, especially agriculture and seafood. How can we awaken our senses through developing some simple rituals for making meals more pleasurable?

The Gustatory Sense/Tastes:

According to Professor Mirco Marconi, from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, there are six tastes that we identify when eating. They include salt, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami (a savoriness) and fat. He goes on to say that there may be more, but these are the ones that have been identified and that are the hallmark of most cuisine.

Our taste buds are composed of 50-100 polarized neruoepithlial cells, with receptors for these six tastes, our gustatory sense. Without going into great detail, the sweet taste signals the presence of carbohydrates that provide energy for our bodies. The salty tast indicates that sodium chloride is present, and this is essential for our body’s water balance. The bitter taste is thought to help us avoid poisons and other toxic substances, and many people avoid anything that tastes bitter. Sour signals the presence of dietary acids in our foods. Sometimes when a food or drink becomes too acidic, we say it ‘sours’. We overcome our avoidance of bitter and sour when we enjoy coffee and lemonade or other bitter and sour tasting foods. Umami is a taste that was isolated and identified in 1908. It is a savory taste or something that we would identify and describe as ‘delicious’—it fills our senses, and signals the presence of glutamate and protein intake. Fat, as all who love bacon know, is the sixth taste sense. As recently as 2010, scientist, Dr. Car Philpott at the Smell and Taste Clinic at the James Paget Hospital in Gorleston, Norwich, discovered that there is a receptor for fat. Before this, it was thought that anyone who had lost their sense of smell (anosmia), could no longer taste.

When we prepare, serve, and enjoy meals, we also experience the pleasure or lack thereof, of our sense of taste. When we are hungry, we might say something like, “I feel like something sweet” or “I feel like a big, thick, juicy steak”. We are getting signals from our body letting us know what our body wants and needs. We may not need a huge slice of lemon meringue pie or a huge chunk of steak, but we might need carbohydrates or protein. Learning to listen to our body’s signals, and knowing that our body needs a balance of the different foods that our taste buds recognize, can help us prepare menus and meals that satisfy our needs and give us pleasure.

Visual/Vision and Sight.

Lucien Tendret (1825-1896) in his work, La Table au pays de Brillat-Savarin, wrote:

"To give life to beauty, the painter uses a whole range of colors, musicians of sounds, the cook of tastes -- and it is indeed remarkable that there are seven colors, seven musical notes and seven tastes”

We might remember as a child, not liking something because of what it looked like. Those of us who struggle with children, getting them to try new foods, understand that both visual and olfactory (smell) senses play a key role in the appeal of food. As Elmo says, “Eat your colors.” At each meal, have a variety of colors on the menu. Also, the colors of your serving plates, table settings, and decor, help accentuate or take away from the appetite and appeal of meals.
Setting a table and arranging food in an appealing manner on the plate are ways to enhance the experience of eating.

Keep the kitchen clean, organized, and beautiful; it helps us enjoy the process of preparing and enjoying meals. When we nourish our visual senses, we also feed our whole being. It aids in digestion, and gives us a way to find harmony and balance in our daily lives.

Ways to stimulate our visual senses:

Arrange food beautifully, in the refrigerator, in the preparation area, and on the table. A glass bowl full of apples or oranges in the refrigerator, is more appealing that a sack full in the crisper.
Hang your copper pots and colorful baskets on the wall of the kitchen.
Fill a bowl full of fresh berries, and use it for a table decoration as well as an appetizer or side dish for a meal.
Serve tea in a ceramic tea pot, and use a tea ball when steeping the tea (gets rid of soggy tea bags).
Candlelight and flowers (even one rose or daisy in a small vase, decorates a dinner table.
Add color to your food. Add some red peppers to a tuna salad, or green grapes to a yogurt or rice dish.
Add red raddicio lettuce or sliced radishes to a green salad.
Use seasonal place mats or table cloths to bring in color.
Occasionally, get a new, colorful set of tea towels and pot holder.
Put a bowl (wooden, glass, or colorful ceramic) filled with fresh fruit, on your coffee table or bedside stand.
Hang beautiful plates or dishes on the kitchen wall to become art.
Keep things simple and organized. Use less instead of more, and arrange things in a pleasing manner. For example, learn the etiquette for setting a table, and then use it to provide a good presentation of your meals.
Garnish! A sprig of parsley on a pot or dish of butternut squash soup, a dab of sour cream on top of homemade white chile, or ground paprika or cayenne pepper sprinkled atop hummus or a soup or salad. Edible garnish on a plate, allows people to sample veggies they might not try otherwise (sliced jicama, kiwi fruit, olives, strawberries, or other fresh produce or pickled foods work well for color and taste). Sprinkle cheese (Feta, parmesan) over a salad or side dish.

Olfactory/Smell.

“Memories, imagination, old sentiments, and associations are more readily reached through the sense of smell than through any other channel.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

Our sense of smell is perhaps one of the most powerful sense. It awakens long lost memories, and stimulates many levels of our being. Using foods that stimulate the senses helps awaken the appetite as well as providing balance in the essential nutrients we need in our meals. Recently in a meditation group, a woman who is undergoing chemotherapy requested something to help her deal with her lack of appetite and thirst, and the toxins within her system. We spent the evening working our way through a guided meditation of the senses. I used the example of thinking of a pleasant memory connected to something delicious that smelled good. I thought of my mother making chocolate cupcakes, and the taste, aroma, and feel of that cupcake warm right out of the oven. We usually had to sit a few minutes to wait for it to cool down enough to eat, and that only increased our appetite as we smelled that unmistakable fragrance of chocolate filling the kitchen. At the end of the evening’s meditation, we were all ravenous, and one of my friends and I headed for the market’s bakery to get ourselves a piece of chocolate cake. Our minds, memories, and senses are so connected, and have a strong impact on our appetite and thirst.

Ways to stimulate our olfactory/sense of smell:

Add a pinch of ground cinnamon or clove to your coffee, or a crushed seed of cardamon to your coffee, tea, or hot chocolate.
Use herbal teas together to make iced tea (mint combines with Constant Comment, raspberry and lemon, Passion Tea, or whatever your favorite herbal teas are. They smell wonderful and taste refreshing, and you can drink them throughout the day without getting a caffeine high.
Marinate chicken in fresh-squeezed orange juice, and sprinkle with grated ginger. Bake slowly for two hours at 250 degrees. The aroma will fill the house. Make garlic and/or lemon chicken by covering the chicken with crushed garlic and/or lemon juice; bake slowly for 2 hours with 250 degrees.
Bake some chocolate chip cookies on a cold day; the aroma will fill the house. Leave the cookies out (provided you have no cats or dogs who climb up on counters).
During the summer, go pick berries. Serve some fresh, and cook up a batch of jam or bake a cobbler or pie. Serve hot, and wake up your taste buds.
Apples getting a bit on the old side? Core and peel, cut into large chunks, and some water and cinnamon, and bring to a boil. Lower the flame/temperature, and simmer until apples are soft and mushy. Mash up and you have applesauce. Add berries or pears for variety. The aroma of fresh, cooked applesauce is delightful to the senses.
Keep fresh herbs in a pitcher of water on the kitchen counter. They provide a nice fragrance, look good, and are readily available for using in your meal preparation.
“The fragrance of white tea is the feeling of existing in the mists that float over waters; the scent of peony is the scent of the absence of negativity: a lack of confusion, doubt, and darkness; to smell a rose is to teach your soul to skip; a nut and a wood together is a walk over fallen Autumn leaves; the touch of jasmine is a night's dream under the nomad's moon.” C.JoyBell C

Tactile/Touch, the Feel of Something:

“Throw away your tongs and toss your food processor. Chef Daniel Patterson believes that in the kitchen, nothing can replace human hands.” Daniel Patterson, The Power of Touch.

“When you think about it, Americans’ aversion to touching their food is an aberration compared with much of the rest of the world. In countries like Morocco, India and Ethiopia, people eat with their hands, not just with utensils. Southeast Asian cooks pound ingredients by hand with a mortar and pestle to make the chile pastes and purees that form the basis of their cuisine.”

Using our senses together, of course, is how we often experience food. We combine the senses to increase our connection to the foods we buy, prepare, serve, and consume. Our sense of touch also comes into play not only in enjoying a meal but also in preparing food. The tactile experience involved in touching the food as we are selecting, cleaning, and preparing food, puts us in touch with the different textures and contrasts. Especially for someone who is sight-impaired, the process of chopping foods, slicing, dicing, mincing, and tossing foods provides an enjoyable sensory experience.

For years now, I have been living among people from cultures where using our hands is a natural part of preparing and eating food. The focus on maintaining good hygiene is also part of these cultures, even to the point of using only hygienic food (cleaning rice, beans, and lentils and meat before food preparation, maintaining scrupulous personal hygiene, and establishing clear guidelines for storing, preparing, and eating food).

Try using your hands more often to clean and prepare food.
Use preparation time as a mindfulness practice, moving more slowly and focusing more closely on what you are doing (from cleaning rice to chopping carrots or onions).
Get utensils that feel good in your hands. Occasionally, I have used a skillet or pan that is too heavy for me to use comfortably. Besides being uncomfortable, it can be harmful.
Arrange your cooking and preparation area to fit you. If possible, have the counter built to suit your height (this may be as simple as adding a thick layer or two to raise the counter top). Organize your shelves so that what you need is within arm’s reach.
Wear an apron that is comfortable, colorful, and practical for working in the kitchen.

Auditory/Sound:

“Walking and talking are two very great pleasures, but it is a mistake to combine them. Our own noise blots out the sounds and silences of the outdoor world; and talking leads almost inevitably to smoking, and then farewell to nature as far as one of our senses is concerned. The only friend to walk with is one who so exactly shares your taste for each mood of the countryside that a glance, a halt, or at most a nudge, is enough to assure us that the pleasure is shared.”
― C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

Sound influences our enjoyment or lack thereof of food and many other experiences. We hear our stomachs growl reminding us we need to eat. We hear the sounds of food being prepared, and it whets our appetites. Nice restaurants use sound to create an appealing environment. In mindful food preparation, the sounds of cutting, cleaning, or cooking often help give us important clues as to what is happening to the food we cook. Think of the times when you listened for the sound that signaled water boiling, or onions sizzling in a skillet. Our auditory senses help us monitor our experiences with food. Music is another way that adds or detracts from our eating experience. Even in the grocery market, we are subconsciously being guided to buy foods through our senses (stimulating, upbeat music, bakery aromas of bread, bright, shiny, colorful displays)—appeal to our senses.

As I write this article, there has been a generator outside creating a loud drone. Can’t help but think it is not only irritating but also affects my appetite. Even though I need to eat, I’m not feeling hungry. This anecdotal experience is not scientific in any way, but just reminds me as I write, how important sound can be in our lives. Too much sound makes it difficult to be mindful of what we’re doing. If we are so distracted by noice, conversations, arguments, or the drone of television or machinery, we pay less attention to what we are eating to and to enjoying the meal.

When eating, sound enhances or detracts from our eating experiences. Providing a quiet, calm environment for eating is one way to use sound to enhance meals. Paying attention to the sounds of the season, (birdsong in spring, rain pattering on the roof in winter, water lapping on the shore in summer, or wind blowing in autumn) all provide the musical or sound background for our lives.

Arrange your table near the window where you can hear the birdsong, sound of the ocean, or the wind.
Play soft music as background to dining.
Make a ritual of silence for some of your meals. Eating mindfully, without distracting chatter, can sometimes be a nice change.
Avoid debates, arguments, or otherwise conflict-laden conversations at the table. Make it a rule to deal with issues, problems, and disagreements at times other than meal time.
When the weather is nice, go outside and have a meal. Take a picnic to the beach, the park, or the riverside.