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The flavour of sound

Here’s how two of the strongest expressions of passion, creativity and dexterity — food and music — connect at many levels

By Vikas Kumar

  • Published 17.08.19, 8:03 PM
  • Updated 17.08.19, 8:03 PM
There is an established connection between food and music, something that is not limited to the superficial ‘sociable sense of happiness and fulfilment’, but something more basic and at the same time more complex.
There is an established connection between food and music, something that is not limited to the superficial ‘sociable sense of happiness and fulfilment’, but something more basic and at the same time more complex. Shutterstock

Half a lifetime ago, while working as a junior pastry chef in one of my overseas stints, I was entrusted with the task of making a certain number of pancakes to be used for dinner service the next day. Quite normal for a chap of my position, except that the number was 3,000 and I was meant to do it all by myself, alone and in the night shift, between the hours of midnight and six in the morning.

You could say ‘I had one job’, that day of the week. Although I was up for it and I would pretend that I had a choice, but the thing is, that the job was extremely monotonous and tedious. Upon my presentation of the problem to the mightily churly executive chef of the time, he gave me the rather malevolent option to ‘take the gangway’ or to try and make it bearable by incorporating something that I liked other than cooking. He delineated his own sorry story of the predicament and enlightened me how he incorporated a pair of headphones among the multiple pairs of frying pans and mixed clarion with crepe (Oh, he was a Frenchman) and that’s how he got by.

Whispering through his missing incisors, he said, “You know what garcon, I could swear those crepes tasted better too.” So I did the same, listening to music while cooking, keeping my job and, you know what, the crepes do taste better.

If you’ve ever arranged a candlelit dinner for a loved one, or been on one, where there is a delightful, soft two-piece band playing in the background, and have wondered why the food tastes so good, well it isn’t just the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin at play here, but the player of the music is somewhat at play too.

It is accepted that food is music to the body and music is food to the heart. While you figure that compound-complex sentence out, let me tell you that there is an established connection between food and music, something that is not limited to the superficial ‘sociable sense of happiness and fulfilment’, but something more basic and at the same time more complex.

Although none of us would really give much of a thought to the fact that in most celebrations and events, food and music go side by side, in the Indian context, the ‘liquid’ food definitely does, but there is actually something called ‘gastromusicology’ that explores the ‘flavour of sound’ in the context of how sound, in general, and musical sounds, in particular, affect the way we taste our food.

Intrigued much? Read on. The reciprocal correlation between food and music is a universal fact and almost all cultures have used both of these as an authentic expression of culture, camaraderie and affinity, often together.

Unless you are in an expensive white gown opera show, or in a church choir recital, where food is not allowed as a rule, chances are that at most places you’d find food accompanied by music and vice-versa and are certainly complementary to each other’s enjoyment quotient.

"Food and food items have been used for ages as a potent inspiration for many a songs and composition," says Vikas. Flurys

Food for music

Well, we could look at it in an extremely metaphysical, scholarly perception or the more basic function as food being the remuneration or reward for an exemplary musical performance. ‘Tafelmusik’ was the term used for food and wine as payment for musicians or as a part of their salary allowance. It is a known fact that numerous musicians have derived inspiration from food, many of them being gourmands and food connoisseurs themselves. Food and food items have been used for ages as a potent inspiration for many a songs and compositions and I don’t specifically mean the Banaras waala paan, the Samosey mein aloo or Gur naal ishq meetha analogies, but the fact is, food and music are emancipations of the same set of sensory perceptions that make us feel happy, sad or satisfied.

What’s the science?

As per University of Oxford research on the subject, it was found that the human body associates higher sounds with sweet tastes and lower sounds with sour tastes. In another experiment, a large group of 231 participants were given beverages and asked to consume those with and without music. The results manifested that sound is, in the most likelihood, a ‘forgotten flavour sense’ since it established that the beverage was reported to taste better with the music on. In another study, it was found that participants unanimously agreed that peppermint flavours taste better when paired with piano music while the music of brass instruments gel better with caffeine, orange and citrus.

What are we doing about it?

Many chefs have taken the leaf out of this research and although we always believed that food is indeed an expression of creativity and passion, much like music is, but with such researches, venturesome chefs across the world entered into the unexplored space of ‘sonic seasoning’, basically meaning to improve the taste of food through accompanying it with compatible music or sounds. The famous Krug champagne, for example, already has an app that provides musical accompaniment for its range of expensive sparkling wines.

The famous author and chef Barbara Werner has founded a patented technique called ‘Musical Pairing’ wherein she has created algorithmic formulas based on the main protein, the sauce, cooking method and spice level and matched it to music, based on genre, tempo, instrument, and dynamics. In essence, the food and the accompanying music can be scientifically manipulated to enhance the enjoyment of the dining experience while at the same time good food can also enhance the appreciation of ‘matching’ music.

Many noted chefs have gone to the extent of providing headphones with their dishes, most noticeably the British chef Heston Blumenthal who had a bunch of people taste his Bacon and Egg ice-cream with different musical accompaniments. People that ate the ice cream with a soundtrack of ‘sizzling bacon’ found the ice cream to be much baconier in flavour than the ones that ate with a soundtrack of ‘poultry farm’ that thought that the ice cream tasted eggy, while both sets were served the exact same product. 

In another analysis, sets of diners were served with fresh oysters, some with a soundtrack of the ocean and others without.

The ones that tasted their oysters with the music of the ocean thought that the oysters had a much more pronounced ‘oceany’ taste than the ones who had them without the music. So much so, that the dish was introduced in the famous Fat Duck restaurant where diners were served oysters with headphones hidden inside a shell.

In the annual Music Tastes Good festival in California, chefs themselves sing, dance and jive to music while cooking and create interpretations of dish profiles that have the melody as well as flavour, basically appealing to all the senses of the diners as well as themselves. To put it in practical perspective, imagine identifying a music or a sound that can enhance the sweetness of a dessert or the saltiness of a soup and then use lesser amounts of sugar and salt in the recipe, thereby making it healthier and perhaps more widely acceptable to people that are on dietary restrictions. Sounds like an alchemist’s fantasy but real work is going on in this field with promising results.

One of my favourite works in this field is the American band One Ring Zero who collaborated with Chef Chris Cosentino and used one of his recipes as their song, word by word. Their unique endeavour, one that the Time magazine wrote rave reviews about, came to be known as the Recipe Project, which quickly scaled up into a huge collaboration of world-famous chefs, musicians, writers and foodies. The book and CD combo released as a part of the project delved on the apparent correlation between food and music. The project includes recipes of famous chefs put to music and basically celebrates chefs as rock stars.

Now a recipe

I scratched my head over and over, just to think of which recipe to share with my column. After all, what would a chef’s column be without a recipe? Then I looked at the beautiful, although massively behindhand, monsoons and my first experience with the food and music interrelation as narrated earlier, came to mind. So I decided to share my recipe of the perfect Crepe Suzette, one of the most popular French desserts of the world, and only among the very few that are traditionally assembled by the restaurant manager and not the chef. Here goes (see page 8).

For the moment, however, remember music is the food of love and just play on.

Vikas Kumar is the executive chef of Flurys. You can reach him at vkumar@flurys.com

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