Search ‘#food’ on Instagram or other social media sites, and you will be bombarded with millions of pictures of more or less appetising dishes. Taking and sharing pictures of food might be one of the biggest trends of the last decade, one which calls perhaps as much for regulation as for an explanation. What is so interesting about the sight of food?
Start to think about it, and being concerned by how food looks seems a core anthropological fact – something humans care about, while other animals don’t. Some of the oldest ceramics in the world, dated 18000BC, reveal that our far ancestors already had a sense that food deserved decoration. If the visual aesthetics of food is not just a new fad, it has certainly been taken to a next level by the most creative chefs today.
The diner’s experience
Heston Blumenthal and the Experimental Kitchen at the Fat Duck are among the ones to have explored and tested how vision can change a diner’s experience: Not by adding extra elements or dying the food red to make it taste sweeter, but by presenting it differently, and in a more aesthetic way.
People might be familiar with meat-fruit where the beautifully crafted mandarine on your plate hides its savoury core, like a culinary trompe-l’oeil (something like a trompe-langue, then). But what about less figurative aesthetics, which do not play on resemblances, but use geometric shapes and patterns?
The visual repertoire of high-end gastronomy nowadays uses spheres, cubes, lines, and abstract drawings, harmoniously arranged on plates – which seem to bring no association to mind. But is that right? Don’t we also have associations between categories of shapes and tastes, above and beyond the specific associations we have for specific foods and ingredients?
Sweet and round, bitter and angular
A way to address the question is to start with tastes, and see whether they bring certain shapes to mind. Our group and various others at the University of Oxford, Dijon and London, managed to show that sweetness is, almost invariably, associated to rounder shapes and bitterness to angularity.
The same cross modal ‘Gestalt’ principle, which Kohler thought linked sounds and shapes, seem to relate shapes and tastes. Using the same shapes and sounds that Kohler used, we can show that the sweet/bitter distinction fits perfectly with the prediction: a sweet food goes best with a rounded, cloud-like shape and is more likely to be called Maluma or Bouba, while bitter foods go best with spiky figures and names like Takete or Kiki.
As for sound and shapes, the question was then to see whether the correspondence goes deeper than a mere evocation: Does it influence expectations, and modulate the overall experience of flavour? Would a sweet mousse be rated as sweeter if it is round and called a ‘Bouba’ dessert, than if it looks angular and presented as a ‘Kiki’ dessert?
But turning these cross modal associations into edible solutions comes with challenges: basic tastes never come by themselves in real life, but with a bouquet of textures and aromas. What shape should a bitter-sweet dish take: Angular, rounded or something else? And what about the shape of the plate on which the food is served?
A recipe for experimentation
These were the questions we had, when we decided to combine the creative insights of the Fat Duck Experimental Kitchen, and the scientific methods of the Centre for the Study of the Senses, at the University of London. And here was the recipe we came up with, through our exchanges:
- As cross modal associations are more likely to influence the perception of ambivalent objects, choose a dish that will be both bitter and sweet, like beetroot.
- Prepare two different visual presentations of the same ingredients, in exactly the same quantities, and make one look ‘round’ and the other look ‘angular’.
- Finish your two-by-two design by placing the round presentation in either a round or an angular plate, and do the same for the angular one.
- To avoid drawing attention to your experiment, choose two groups and present them with two plates of the same shape – but with different presentations. Simply let them choose a name for each, before and after they eat, and rate their sweetness or sourness.
The volunteers were recruited during an event held at the Being Human Festival in London. The data gave us two interactions to look at: Within the same group, we could see how changing the shape of the food, but not the shape of the plate, affected its perceived sweetness and sourness; across groups, we could see how changing the shape of the plate, for the same shape of food, would affect its perceived taste.
Does the shape of the plate simply recede in the background, and does the presentation of the food drive all the effects – as the close-ups on Instagram and some cookbooks suggest?
The visual aesthetic of food
Our results actually show the contrary: There is an interaction between the shape of the food, and the shape of the plate – crucial enough to turn a subtle sweetness enhancement of the rounded beetroots into a significant effect. The dish tasted sweeter and less sour when the beetroots were spherical and came on a round plate, than in all the other combinations.
When it comes to the visual aesthetic of food, especially in its abstract form, the care should be as much on the vessel as on its content. The overall composition matters, not just the shape of the food. One way to think about it is to see that the plate is not just a canvas or background for the food, but is integral to the framing of the experience. What the abstract art of plating shows especially is why creating a dish uses both edible and non-edible ingredients.
(This work would not have been possible without the creative insights and expertise steaming out of the Experimental Kitchen of the Fat Duck, and Daniel Ospina’s and Deiniol Pritchard contribution. We wished also to thank Charles Michel and Natasha Block for their help during the event, and the AHRC/ Being Human festival for their support)
Merle Fairhurst is a research fellow at the Centre for the Study of the Senses at the University of London working on the AHRC project 'Rethinking the Senses'. She is specifically interested in the interactions between and integration of sensory signals within and across individuals.
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- A dish by any other shape, would not have tasted as sweet - 27th May 2015