There’s more to taste than just placing a dab of something on the tongue. Even the sound of the food name and the shape of the plate it’s served on affect the taste of what we eat.
Our experience of food, some researchers hypothesize, may involve a form of synesthesia, a rare neurological condition in which certain senses seem to be cross-wired. True synesthetics may see musical notes or letters of the alphabet as colors, or associate tastes or sounds with shapes. Author and synesthetic Vladimir Nabokov, for example, heard letter sounds as colors: n was oatmeal; k, huckleberry; and s a mix of azure and mother-of-pearl. Composer Nikolai Rimski-Korsakov heard musical notes in color; and the subject of Richard Cytowic’s The Man Who Tasted Shapes experienced lemon juice as pointy and chocolate pie as “cool, smooth columns.”
At some level, however, we all may be a little bit synesthetic. Some evidence for this comes from the Bouba-Kiki Test, invented by Estonian psychologist Wolfgang Kohler in 1929. Test subjects are shown pictures of two objects, one spiky and star-like, the other blobby and rounded. Which nonsense name, bouba or kiki, they are asked, goes with which? Over 95 percent of subjects assign bouba to the rounded blob and kiki to the spiky star.
The bouba-kiki test extrapolates to taste. Studies by psychologist Charles Spence and colleagues found that people routinely agreed about which foods were kiki and which bouba. Carbonated beverages, dark chocolate, sharp cheese, and Bitburger beer, for example, were deemed kiki; milk chocolate and Brie were bouba. By extrapolation, I’d be willing to bet that hot peppers, lemons, and rhubarb are kiki, while mashed potatoes and tapioca pudding are bouba. I can see this turning into a great dinner-party game.
These experiments suggest that our senses are cross-connected. Our brains form links between shapes, sounds, and tastes. For this reason, some researchers guess, our experience of taste can be altered by the shape of the dishes in which a food is served.
A recent study by Merle Fairhurst and colleagues at the University of London found foods were perceived as sweeter when served on round rather than angular (square or triangular) plates. In other investigations, spicy foods (containing ginger, garlic, and wasabi) were perceived as spicier when served in “kiki” bowls (made with spiky bumps and a sandpapery texture), while foods containing such ingredients as coconut milk, potatoes, and vanilla were perceived as richer and creamier if served in “bouba” bowls (soft rounded bumps with a smooth texture).
And what about the sound of food words in general? Do some food words just sound fat?
Most people agree that yes, some words just plain do. Butter, for example, sounds pudgy; so do chocolate, coconut, and hotdog. Biscuit, on the other hand, is linguistically lightweight. So, it turns out, are cheese and chicken.
Granted, this doesn’t seem to make much sense. (Cheese? Skinny?) But it’s all in the vowels, explains Stanford University linguist Dan Jurafsky in his recent book The Language of Food. Thin- or small-sounding words, says Jurafsky, tend to contain front vowels—that is, those pronounced with the tongue held high in the front part of the mouth—like “ee” as in cheese, or “i” as in mint. Fat- or heavy-sounding words, on the other hand, tend to contain back vowels–those pronounced with the tongue held low in the back of the mouth—such as “o” and “ah” sounds.
Just for fun, take our quiz and tell us whether you think these familiar foods are kiki or bouba. There are no wrong answers.
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All photographs in the quiz are by Rebecca Hale, National Geographic Magazine