cucina bene;mangia bene (do you feel with your mouth?)
So I was watching this food show on TV the other night and someone commented that the food has a nice ‘mouthfeel’ and I started thinking about what that really means and why it influences the foods we like and dislike. The definition, according to Wikipedia, is as follows:
Mouthfeel is a product’s physical and chemical interaction in the mouth. It is a concept used in many areas related to the testing and evaluating of foodstuffs, such as wine-tasting and rheology. It is evaluated from initial perception on the palate, to first bite, through mastication to swallowing and aftertaste. In wine-tasting, for example, mouthfeel is usually used with a modifier (big, sweet, tannic, chewy, etc.) to the general sensation of the wine in the mouth. Some people, however, use the traditional term, "texture".
I am very sensitive to texture in foods. Take bananas for example: I love them when they are are young and still green and cannot eat them when they are old and brown as the texture is different. I can’t eat mealy apples or pears and I don’t like tapioca because of the texture. It’s interesting how different cultures have different tolerances for mouthfeel. When I was in Italy, no one ate pasta that was overcooked or vegetables that were undercooked. If a vegetable was still crunchy or had any texture other than mushy baby food, it was considered inedible as was pasta that was too soft. Yet, fish is nearly always served whole with the bones, skin, fins and head still attached which would never be tolerated here in America because of the potential negative mouthfeel. Whenever I ask if there is any whole fish available at a fish market or grocery store, I’m always looked at like I have horns growing out of my head…..why would I want a whole fish with all the bones, skin, fins and head still attached? Pasta here is almost always overcooked because America’s concept of ‘al dente’ is much different and no one would ever consider overcooking a vegetable to make it mushy—yuk!
Meats are another food where there is sensitivity to mouthfeel. I’ve found that the majority of people I cook beef for like it medium to well-done as opposed to rare. The texture of beef changes dramatically the longer it is cooked. Rare or medium rare beef is still soft, juicy and easy to chew while medium to well-done beef, no matter what the quality, is always chewier and drier. The same goes for chicken breasts vs. chicken thighs or drumsticks. Breast meat is virtually tasteless, very dry and has an almost cloying mouthfeel, while the dark meat is much more moist and flavorful and has a smooth mouthfeel. Most other cultures prefer the dark meat of a chicken. I remember being asked by a French travel writer last year, during a cooking demonstration in Lincoln City, where the rest of the chicken was as he was only seeing chicken breasts and those ‘tender’ things. He said in France, the breast is not the preferred cut of the chicken, it’s the thighs and the back because they have the most flavor and are not dry and tasteless (his words). In many Asian countries, chicken feet are eaten with wild abandon while here in America, one does not see chicken feet as a choice in a conventional grocery store. Why, because of the ‘mouthfeel’—no one wants to feel those bony feet in their mouth.
I often hear how many people dislike oysters because they are slimy. ‘Slimy’ is a mouthfeel not a taste. Oysters taste like the sea and with a squeeze of lemon or Tabasco are delicious. I love oysters both raw and cooked and I have learned to get past the ‘sliminess’. It’s interesting how a texture in a food can trigger your brain to tell you that you don’t want/like to eat that food despite the taste. Bruce has a problem with raw tomatoes. He likes the flavor, but can’t get past the seeds and the flesh. He can, however, eat sun-dried and cooked tomatoes with no trouble. So is mouthfeel a psychological thing? Mind over matter? If we like the flavor of something but can’t get past the texture does it mean our brain is getting in the way of us enjoying something?
Mouthfeel is not always something we think about when we determine we don’t like something, yet it plays a big role in the foods we choose to eat. I’ve heard other terms used (and used myself) such as mushy, mealy, grainy, coarse, spongy, gelatinous, viscous, crunchy and chewy. In many cases, these same words can be used in a positive way to describe foods. Panna cotta is gelatinous, red wine can be chewy, fried foods must be crunchy (no one wants mushy or greasy fried food), and cake is spongy. The next time you eat something and decide that you don’t like it, think about why. Is it the flavor or is it the mouthfeel? I think you’ll be surprised at how much the way things feel in your mouth influences your likes and dislikes. I will leave you with an in-season appetizer recipe that has a great mouthfeel and taste….buon appetitio!