A matter of opinion: press the pause button

Categories: Reflections and opinions

Sybil Kapoor, author of Sight Smell Touch Taste Sound: A New Way to Cook, argues that to truly enjoy our food we must take the time to reconnect with all our senses

When was the last time you savoured every bite of your lunchtime cheese and pickle sandwich? Did you notice how the bread felt in your hands or how its ingredients were released in your mouth? Was the bread chewy and sour or pappy and sweet? Did the cheese crumble or melt into a creamy mass? Was the pickle chunky or smooth, tart or sugary?

If you were sitting at your desk or scrolling through your mobile phone, the chances are you scarcely really noticed what you were eating. In truth, most people barely register their physical senses or feel aware of their environment. The demands of the modern world are simply too distracting.

Until recently, I was no exception. I’d eat my supper in front of the telly and become so absorbed by what I was watching that I’d hardly notice the fragrant lamb rogan josh or blue cheese pizzetti I’d made. However, as I began to write my latest book, I realised that it was time to hit the pause button and make the effort to reconnect with my culinary senses.

Sniff the air
It’s a surprisingly enjoyable undertaking. First, switch off your mobile devices. Take pleasure in shopping for your ingredients—sniff the cold fresh air, listen to the bustling sounds around you and enjoy the sheer beauty of winter produce, before you choose what to buy and cook. Once back in the warmth of your kitchen, think about how the taste, flavour, smell, texture, temperature, sound and appearance of your cooking might be enhanced.

Begin by inspecting and smelling your chosen ingredients, whether they are apples, kippers or butter. Remember that while we can only detect five tastes—sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami—all of which are water-soluble, we can through our sense of smell perceive tens of thousands of airborne flavours. All flavours are linked directly to our memories and can act as triggers to our emotions, good or bad. Thus, the spicy scent of glühwein fills me with bonhomie, whereas the lactic smell of boiled milk fills me with childish dread.

Consider how the texture of your chosen food can be altered. Our perception of texture begins with our fingertips and ends in our mouths. Fat, such as in a pear syllabub, enables tastes and flavours to linger in the mouth, while a clever use of contrasting textures can add excitement—for example, the addition of a crisp, buttery pastry crust to a soft caramelised onion and beef stew. Even noise has an influence: does the sound of snapping a parmesan breadstick or eating a squeaky Thai-style salad increase or lessen your enjoyment?

Cooking, eating and socialising
Now add temperature to the mix. Aside from altering your perception of taste and flavour, it will change the texture of dishes, particularly if they contain fat. A chilled home-made custard, for example, has a very different mouth-feel to hot or tepid custard.

Finally, allow yourself the luxury of cooking, eating and socialising without the distraction of social media, work or television. Resist the temptation to photograph any dish—instead, just revel in the moment. If you do all this, if you reconnect with the simple pleasures of eating, time will slow down and life will, for the duration of that pause, feel truly good.