More than a feeling: How to make the most of the texture of food

The texture of food – the crunchiness or sliminess that Asian diners love – is often overlooked by western cooks.

On a Saturday evening sometime in the last year of the 1990s, Fuchsia Dunlop, cookery writer and the first Westerner to train at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in China, sat down for dinner. Joining her at the table at the upmarket restaurant in Chengdu were her parents, visiting her where she had been holed up while writing her book, Sichuan Cookery.

Fluent in Mandarin, she chose for her parents and herself, ticking the boxes on the hot pot menu as she had done on innumerable other occasions. Half an hour later, they sat dipping Chinese delicacies into the spicy, steaming pot in front of them.

"I watched my father eating the things I'd ordered, ploughing on, silently. I could hear the crunching," Dunlop says.

The munching and crunching could be expected. Dunlop had ordered what was to her, by then, normal fare: cartilage from a cow's throat ("gristly"), goose intestine ("like a rubber band"), fish heads ("slimy and lovely") and chickens' feet ("more gristly than the throat").

"I thought two things," she says. "One, I recognised that I'd crossed the last frontier, as the textures of the foods he was struggling with were the things I'd come to enjoy, as Chinese people do. And, secondly, I thought how limited the breadth of textures we encounter in the West is."

It is hard not to agree with Dunlop. Eating for texture – the crunch and the squelch, the graunch and the chomp – isn't really part of Western gastronomy. It isn't that we don't appreciate texture, recognise when something is brittle or soft; it's just that for most of us it's subordinate to the other gustatory senses.

If a pleasing dish is a symphony, with the different instruments – taste, aroma, appearance – coming together to make that one perfect chord, for most of us texture is the triangle – a welcome addition, but not essential.

Sat Bains, the chef-patron of his eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant in Nottingham, certainly thinks that we undervalue it as a culinary tool: "We like texture changes in a plate of food, get bored by a uniform texture (try eating a massive bowl of panna cota), but most cooks at home don't make much play with it consciously – it's overlooked."

This can, in part, be put down to a lack of understanding of what it is and how we experience it. Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, says we might expect the feel of something in our mouths to be the primary site for determining texture (slimy, say, or brittle), but there are actually other factors in play.

"Like flavour, which is in part determined by smell, texture is determined as much by sound as by the sensory receptors in the mouth," Spence says. Studies show that the sound made by the teeth colliding with the food – which is transmitted by the bones in the jaw and the air around the mouth to the ear – is instrumental in our perception of texture. This explains why, for some of us, the sound of crunching bones is enough to have us flinching and squirming as if we were eating them ourselves.

But there is a flip side to this. By changing the sound a food makes as we chew it, scientists are able to manipulate our perception of it – make it more pleasing to our palates. So when the manufacturers of crisps want to remove an unhealthy, but texture-giving, component of, say, a crisp, they merely have to increase the sound it makes as it breaks. "Although you can never make a soggy crisp seem crunchy by making the noise it makes when you breakit louder – you can increase the perception of crunchiness by up to 20 per cent," Spence says.

Top-flight chefs, of course, have long known about the importance of texture. Alan Murchison, the Michelin-starred chef from Scotland's L'ortolan, serves a dish that includes caramel in various textured forms, running from traditional and squidgy, hard honeycomb, crème caramel and caramel jelly. The idea is to surprise the senses with a familiar flavour in an unfamiliar form. Baines also does that with his Waldorf salad, which has all the usual flavours but in different forms (think pannacota of water cress, nougat of walnuts and crunchy, salted apples).

For some, this textural trickiness is style run riot and a tiresome interference with the natural properties of the ingredients on a plate. For others, though, it's a way to enlarge the narrow range of texture nature has bequeathed us an appreciation for. As Spence points out, our appreciation of texture is, to some extent, hardwired by what our mothers eat in the womb.

But as Dunlop found, we can rewire ourselves, or use what we know and enjoy it in a different way. We may not want to rush out and buy chicken's feet or cow cartilage, but a few bits of crunch in a salad, or a gratin crust on a chicken breast, can make a world of difference.

SAT BAINS'S TIPS FOR ADDING TEXTURE AT HOME

Textured salad

Use a sharp knife to make thin slivers of chicory, fennel and onion. Mix them with salad leaves. Then fry pumpkin seeds, pine nuts and sesame seeds in a pan. Mix two teaspoons of soy with a tablespoon of oil while you're waiting. Then toss it all together and you have a riot of textures.

Special ragu

This is a really simple way to add texture to a dish lots of us eat at home. When you are serving your ragu, put some dry bread in the base of the dish. The contrast between the pasta, ragout and bread is fun – and very simple to do.

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