The other night I was craving pasta. It was like an obsession had hijacked my brain and I couldn’t focus on anything else. If I didn’t have pasta I felt as if I’d go insane. Crazy, but I know you know that feeling, when you desire a specific food, not because you’re hungry, but because the urge is so strong that you feel powerless to fight it and it completely overwhelms you – yup, that was me.
Some people believe that cravings mean our bodies need certain nutrients found in the food we’re fixated on. Other people see cravings as a sign of weakness, as a form of seeking comfort, and feel powerless to fight them. I was craving a pristine bowl of silken pasta drenched in a garlic flavored cheese sauce, and there was no escaping this yearning. Why couldn’t I be craving a healthy bowl of salad or quinoa? Nope, my body craved pasta and I was in no mood to evaluate why, so off I went to the nearest market to buy pasta, cheese, olive oil and fresh garlic. It was as if I was possessed by little pasta eating aliens and I wasn’t strong enough to fight them!
Once my little pasta aliens were satiated, it got me thinking about my relationship to food and how food feels, tastes, smells, and looks. It was the famous epicure, Marcus Gavius Apicius, who flourished during the first century A.D. that came up with the line, “the first taste is with the eyes”. I think he was right, but it isn’t just the sight of food that appeals to our senses. It’s the smell, colors, taste and texture that make food such a pleasurable experience.
For years, food developers have been concerned with the taste, smell, and color of the products they produce. In recent years, vivid hues captured the consumer’s attention. It’s become obvious that most of the food we eat would not appeal to us if it was colorless. As the psychology of color became understood many food manufacturers gave food and food packaging a cosmetic makeover to entice consumers to purchase their products.
The latest food trend to attract consumers is all about texture. “Texture is the new color in food and beverage product development,” said Lynn Dornblaser, Director of Insights and Innovation at Mintel Research. “Consumers want to experiment; they want to try new things. They’re looking for those unique textural experiences.”
The use of texture claims in the food industry is rising, because how a food feels directly affects our enjoyment of said food. Consumers are looking for unique textural experiences, like crispy, crunchy, silky, creamy, chewy or buttery. A product that offers a contrast of textures, like crunchy and smooth, or chewy and creamy are especially popular. “For products that make the claim on the pack about the texture, consumers are more likely to say they would buy those than products that don’t make a statement about the texture,” Ms. Dornblaser said.
In “Mouthfeel: How Texture Makes Taste,” by biophysics professor Ole G. Mouritsen and chef Klavs Styrbaek, the authors note, “when diners in a restaurant send a dish back to the kitchen, it’s normally because the meat is too tough, the soup is too cool, or the French fries have lost their bite.” It’s not about how the food tastes, but about how it feels. This is an area where the Japanese have a clear lead on us. The authors mention a study that identified 445 Japanese terms for texture, compared to the paltry 78 terms offered by American English. It seems we may need a larger vocabulary to do justice to all the ways texture affects food.
This may explain why I like to drink water only if it’s sparkling. The taste isn’t any different, but it seems that way, and all because the texture impacts my perceived flavor of the water. Food texture affects the physical sensations in our mouth caused by the food. It’s a sensory attribute, which, along with taste and smell, determine the overall flavor of a food. Which takes me back to my pasta craving. Perfectly cooked pasta is called “Al Dente,” which sounds like a fancy term for making sure your noodles are done. “Al Dente” literally means “to the tooth” in Italian. Al Dente pasta is cooked just enough to retain a firm texture while being fully pliable. That means that well-cooked pasta must have a soft bite, a “snap” that you can feel when you chew.
It’s not clear when exactly firmer pasta became the “in” thing, but I’m glad it did. The taste of the pasta comes out so much better in al dente pasta, and it’s healthier for you. Hot water breaks down the molecule bonds in starches – that’s how it turns dry pasta into cooked pasta. The longer the noodles are cooked, the more the molecules are broken down, and the faster your body can convert those carbs into fuel. That fast breakdown causes blood sugar levels to rise suddenly and then crash only a few hours later, leaving you tired and hungry again. When pasta is cooked al dente, it takes longer for your body to break down those carbs, which keeps your blood sugar levels more stable and your body more sufficiently fueled and filled. The result? You’re less likely to overeat or to eat unhealthy snacks after your meal.
Brain scan studies show that brain regions associated with emotions, habits and memories light up when people experience cravings. “You want a certain thing because you want to feel a certain way and there’s a certain thing you’ve eaten before that made you feel that way, therefore you want that thing,” says Dr. David Katz, Director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center. Noodles and cottage cheese was one of my childhood comfort foods. In Yiddish, it was called lokshen mit kaese, I think of it as the Eastern European version of mac ‘n cheese. The basic ingredients were noodles, cheese, butter, salt and pepper. My mother made me this dish whenever I wasn’t feeling well and she would serve it to me on a tray while I lay happily in bed, like a princess. I remember the silky texture of the noodles and the rich, creamy taste of the cheese sliding into my mouth, it felt like heaven!
Comfort, nostalgia, pasta takes me to my happy place. So, the next time my pasta craving hits, I’m going to indulge, because it evokes food memories that feel and remind me of home.