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Food and emotions

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Xenia Lam, Food & Beverage manager, Taj Holiday Village Resort & Spa, Goa writes about how the sense of taste and smell have the power to take us back in time 

Take a deep breath. Close your eyes. Think of an ingredient or smell or dish that transports you back
in time. It can be anything from a fiery wok with garlic and chillies to sizzling bacon or freshly baked bread.
The human senses of taste and smell have the power to take us back in time.

Through the medium of food you can hear the amusement and squabbling as a child and see places in your mind that haven’t been visited in a while. Playing an influential role in our memories as well as lives, our
food related recollections have a share of good and bad. Smells, textures and tastes all being extraordinarily evocative and assisting us in reminiscing not just of eating but also of places and settings.

More often than we realise, our consumption decisions are based on our memories, channeling us
in the direction of the foods we like and dream of, the foods we were brought up on and the foods
that spell conviviality, cementing its great nostalgic importance.

Food memories

Food memories form without any conscious editing, they take on all attributes of various situations
in which they were acquired and become associated with activities involved in the act of cooking or
eating or simply just being around food. Similarly, recollection of family meals around the dining
table take on a supplementary emotional meaning and smells and tastes only further heighten the
experience. One such vivid memory for me was learning how to bake red velvet cupcakes! Post my baking, the messy cream cheese frosting fights became a larger experience and cherished memory.

French writer Marcel Proust’s recounts in his seminal novel “In Search Of Lost Time” how eating a madeleine cake as an adult instantly evoked memories from his childhood of seeing his aunt dip her madeleine cake in tea. Ever since, any involuntary memory that evokes your past has been known as a “Proustian moment”.

For me, biting into red velvet cupcakes clearly defines my Proustian moments, reminding me vividly of the day I learnt to bake and was smothered in cream cheese from head to toe. We have often heard and read that most baked as well as comfort foods are very robust memory joggers; especially things like cakes, breads and bacon. For me comfort food may be defined as foods that tie us to fond memories; those that make us feel warm and protected, foods we think of when we hear the word homemade and foods that remind us of simpler times. Comfort food trends have seen a real resurgence in recent years and our yearning for these nutriments seem to be holding strong. They are simple uncomplicated meals that relieve stress and remind us of the years gone by.

In recent years, our palates have become more international and discerning, and our waistlines dictate that we eat a little less due to which some foods have been lost in time but “memory” foods transcend and always deserve to be revisited.

When living away from home, the body and mind crave familiarity and foods etched into our very beings. Coming from a mixed heritage of a Parsi and Goan upbringing my coveted food memories ranged from Dhansak (A dish made with lentils, meat and vegetables, served with browned rice) to a simple Goan fish curry with rice. Dhansak is one of those magical iconic Parsi dishes that appease all. For me it is the familial feeling of home, of flavours and spice that made Sundays and of the hands that raised me. On the other
hand – fish curry and rice filled me with sentiments of love, of learning to eat with my hands, series and stories of events revolving around little prawn armies and things that captivated my mind as a child which now form vibrant memories. The pungent masalas, the ginger and garlic wafting through the room recall sensations and memoirs, and most often a smell is stronger than a visual memory – we always “smell the memory first”!

Food as catalyst

Technically, the sense of smell is the one most closely tied to memory. But the sense of taste is undoubtedly a close second, especially when you consider just how much of what you taste is impacted by your sense of smell. And when you combine smell and taste, it is quite literally the equation of what memories are made of. For food-focused individuals like me when I specifically think of travel memories, I typically pull
up images of not only gorgeous landscapes, bustling cities, or quaint little villages, but also unhurried lingering dinners, Michelin starred dishes , unforgettable pastries and hole in the wall restaurants with the best local food. The mind is such a powerful tool that I can take a bite of something and immediately get transported back to wherever I was when I first tried that flavorbe it the falafel and hummus at one of Jordan’s most iconic restaurants or Chinese street food from a local vendor in the busy by lanes of New Delhi.

It has occurred to me that food isn’t the only definitive reason I have those memories but it’s been quite the catalyst, it’s the experiences that were created while enjoying the food. It’s the time spent with loved ones, learning new skills and celebrating life’s moments. And that’s our job as hospitality professionals – creating memories that last and rise above rest. The physical act of enjoying the food itself most likely lasts only a few minutes, but the memory linked to that food experience can last a lifetime.

Evolution has seen to it that food in general may be a privileged target of memory in the brain. There is a part of the brain called the hippocampus that is critical for memory. The hippocampus is particularly important for forming long-term, declarative memories—those that can be consciously recalled and which contribute to the autobiographies that we all carry around in our heads. The hippocampus has strong connections with parts of the brain that are important for emotion, taste and for smell. This may explain why emotional memories can be so vivid or why certain smells trigger a sense of recall in us even before we consciously remember an event.

A Michelin memory

Chefs of today too, rely on personal experiences and memories to influence their creations and showcase
their stories giving their plates meaning and life. I had the privilege of experiencing ‘The warm lobster salad’ – a star studded creation by Michelin star Chef Ignacio Solana of Restaurante Solana in Ampuero, Spain.

That pretty little plate sat in front of me and it was something on the terms of love at first sight making it somewhat a golden Michelin memory. I was curious about the story of this elegant dish so I asked and his answer was simple – “it is an inspiration from the classic prawn cocktail that was offered at communions and weddings when I was a child and I loved it, memories of dipping  fingers into the rich sauce and scouting out prawns and licking bowls clean, something so simple that forever stayed with me! To emulate this memory I created an ode to the dish with my own version of the warm lobster salad – using the whole lobster with different textures on the plate to give all the senses a treat.” And believe me it was!

A question that will forever circulate in the cosmos -what specifically about certain foods makes them so evocative decades later? Constructed on our primate ancestry as hunter gatherers, fruit seekers and eaters, the flavours of various foods push buttons in our brain. Nearly all human cultures engage in feasting and revelry, in which past events or special occurrences are commemorated with the eating, cooking and sharing amidst abundance of food. Over time, food abundance has become a vehicle for memory enhancement at the cultural level. Feasts serve not only an abundance of food but an abundance of memories.

A fancy plate, a bowl of street food or mothers comfort dishes singularly does not a feast make. However, under the right circumstances, a dish resampled years later can unbridle a cornucopia of memories. Food in general are of course not unique in their ability to promote a mnemonic cascade however, our evolved psychology may make food one of the more likely things in the environment around which memories are formed and focused.


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