Food and Sound Crossmodality – the Szechuan Peppercorn experience

Szechuan pepper (also Sichuan), is a widely used spice in the cuisine of China’s Sichuan Province. In addition to its aromatic profile and citrous flavour, the spice produces a tingling and numbing sensation in the mouth when eaten. This is due to an active ingredient known as hydrixy-alpha sanshool (also present in the Amazonian herb Jambu). Sichuan pepper tingling works through the sanshool acting on multiple nerve endings at once, increasing sensitivity in the mouth and causing vibration on the lips measured at 50 Hertz.

In collaboration with Professor Barry Smith (School of Advanced Studies, University College London) we developed a cross-modal experience exploring the vibro-tactical and hence potentially sonic properties of Sichuan pepper. To experience this put 3-4 Sichuan peppercorns in your mouth, start the track below (listen over headphones) and start crunching the peppercorns. The sound piece aims to follow the various sensations, ending in the infamous 50Hz tingling. In addition to the entertaining value of eating the pepper while listening to a sound piece, this work asks questions around food-sound cross-modality. How does sound affect our food perception? Previous research (by for example Charles Spence) shows numerous relationships showing the effects of sound on taste.

One of the aims of this piece is to ask whether while listening to the piece the tasting sensation can be shared if experiencing it as a group. For example, do most people experience the tingling sensation at the same time and can the sonic domain help ‘synchronise’ our sensations? The sonic experience in food is pervasive is somewhat understudied. From the effect of the sound of crunch on our sensation of crunch (see – The Crunch Test) to our attuned listening to the sizzling pan telling us the perfect Maillard reaction (caramelisation) is taking place, sound plays a fundamental role in the preparation and consumption of food. The creative interplay between the two open fertile ground for understanding cross-modality and reconsider our food experiences.

Hope you enjoy the experience and please leave your comments below…

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