“Too smoothie!” protested my two-year-old daughter, removing a chunk of nectarine from her mouth decisively. The problem was the fruit’s texture – it was fleshy and ripe, almost slimy with juice. The next day she demolished another nectarine, safely coated in yogurt and sprinkled with distracting muesli. Toddlers’ idiosyncrasies aside, texture is an often-neglected aspect of eating.
Diners tend to focus on how dishes taste and smell, and particularly, in the age of Instagram, on how they look. Most consider texture only when it confounds their expectations, or seems somehow wrong. Yet without it, food becomes unrecognisable. In experiments, only 4% of people can identify cabbage once it’s been pureed and sieved, despite its notoriously pungent flavour.
Visit the monkey house at a zoo and the significance of texture in evolutionary terms is clear. Chimpanzees spend up to eight hours a day chewing their food. Once upon a time so did humans. Using stone tools, and later fire, to prepare their food made it easier to chomp. According to analysis by Daniel Lieberman and Katherine Zink, evolutionary anthropologists at Harvard University, getting through a prehistoric diet of 2,000 kilocalories a day (comprising a tempting mix of raw goat, yams, carrots and beets) takes 2.5m fewer chews a year when the meat is sliced and the veg pounded than when it is unprocessed. That frees up about one month each year to learn other useful skills – such as talking.
But most visceral reactions to particular textures – the gag at a spongy mouthful of tripe or the shudder at a bony chicken foot – cannot be explained in simple biological terms. Texture is a useful way to ascertain if food is fresh; a crisp apple is a better bet than a woolly one. But it is less helpful than taste or smell when it comes to figuring out if food is safe to eat; the stodgy “mouth-feel” of a collapsed soufflé is disappointingly wrong but the dessert is still fit for consumption.
Attitudes are overwhelmingly cultural, says Sybil Kapoor, author of “Sight Smell Touch Taste Sound: A New Way to Cook”. Compare China and Japan with countries such as Britain and America. Texture is taken far more seriously in the former. According to one study, Americans use just 78 words to describe the texture of food. By contrast, there are more than 400 such terms in Japanese. Puri-puri describes the feel of biting into something like a prawn, bouncy, with a slight resistance; neba-neba, the slimy, viscous feel of foods such as natto, fermented soyabeans. Shuko Oda, head chef at Koya, an udon bar in London, says that only Japanese customers order it; the rest balk at the snot-like strings clinging to the beans.
In China, texture is part of the pleasure of food and people praise the feel as much as flavour, says Fuchsia Dunlop, a British writer on Chinese food. Ingredients are used for their mouth-feel alone. Birds’ nests and sharks’ fins don’t taste of much, but both contribute a gelatinous texture that is prized. For non-natives, the choicest textures can be puzzling, at best. At Sanxia Renjia, a Sichuan restaurant in London, shredded chicken doused in chilli and soy sauce makes sense to the British palate. The cool, translucent strips of jellyfish that accompany it are more challenging; they feel like a cross between a cucumber and a condom, rubbery but with a tendency to break apart with each bite. The flavour of chicken gizzards, fried and nestling amid wild chilli, is inoffensive. Bite down and appreciating them becomes harder. The tense little muscles once used to grind up food skid between your teeth, forcing you to work as hard to chew them as the gizzards themselves once did. Recipes from Westerners about how best to cook these gristly morsels seem designed to strip them of their texture, with directions to braise them for hours in order to melt the connective tissues before frying them to a crisp.
That misses the point. Dunlop says she ate the knobbly chicken feet and goose intestines set before her only because she had been brought up to be polite. But repeated exposure and experimentation have been transformative. She now relishes the gristle in a roast chicken, she says. The sea cucumber, a slithery yet crisp delicacy revolting to most non-Chinese, has become a beautiful thing to her.
In China novelty and variety are paramount. An appreciation of texture introduces many possibilities for innovation. That kind of open-mindedness used to be more common in Britain, says Fergus Henderson, a chef known for his gutsy promotion of the unloved bits of meat. “The texture is what turns me on about kidney,” he enthuses. “The give when you bite into one is heaven.” But he is an outlier in this. As cooking techniques have changed, and the need to use every bit of the animal has lessened, certain textures have fallen out of favour. Whereas cooks in the West once embraced slow cooking, trying to extract the maximum flavour and use out of any piece of meat, and appreciating the jellied textures that might result, modern cooks value speed. But though many have embraced techniques from China such as stir-frying, says Kapoor, they have yet to match its appreciation of texture.
In affluent Western societies, tolerance for extremes in textures is diminishing because people eat more processed food and take less time to eat, suggests Ole Mouritsen, a professor of molecular biophysics who has written a book about mouthfeel. People prepare things that are easy to chew, a trend that might, he says, go some way to explaining the growing epidemic of obesity. But Dunlop’s experience indicates that such shifts could be reversed. The Sapere method was developed in the 1970s by a French chemist as a way to educate children about eating. A growing number of countries, from Finland to Britain, are adopting it. Children are taught about the five tastes using all five senses. They are encouraged to try new foods and to find words to describe their experiences. Changes to the climate may force us to consider more seriously eating things that for many initially elicit shudders. Warming seas mean the numbers of jellyfish are growing. Eating them (above) could be one answer. With a bit of determination and a few more tasting sessions, even my daughter might get on board.