“I’ve eaten the same meal on a plate,” New Yorker Lily Kunin told the NY Post recently. “It just wasn’t that good.” Others too have claimed that superfood salads and healthy meals served in bowls simply “taste better”.
It’s an assertion which sounds nonsensical to many – but there could be some truth to it. It’s all to do with how a variety of sensory stimuli can impact our perception of flavour and even our how full we feel after a meal.
The power of the colour and texture of food to influence taste has been well-documented – as has the importance of the type of utensils used and the materials they are made from.
The colour red, for instance, can make sweets with exactly the same sugar content taste sweeter than their non-red counterparts. And one peer-reviewed study, carried out in a “realistic dining environment,” explored the fact that heavier cutlery seemed to increase people’s perceptions of how valuable a meal is. But the results of such experiments are sometimes quite varied – another found that yoghurt tasted “denser and more expensive” when eaten with a light plastic spoon.
When it comes to crockery, all kinds of factors can come into play, says Charles Spence, an expert in the psychology of taste at the University of Oxford.
“I certainly believe that the plateware we use to eat from plays a role in what things tastes like,” he says. “Everything from the texture, the temperature or the feel or the plateware or bowl can fit into this.”
For one thing, if bowl foodies are holding the bowl in their hands while eating, increasing the vessel’s weight could impact their sense of satisfaction with the meal, even making the food taste “more rich or intense”.
“There will be this more general effect that if you’re holding a bowl that’s warm, you’ll perceive other people around you as warmer,” says Spence. “You might be willing to pay more as a result.”
A bowl without a rim will more often be filled right to the edge, giving the perception of there being more – Charles Spence
Spence carried out experiments with subjects to find out whether the size of the rim on a plate will impact their perception of how much food is there. Portions of the same size seemed smaller to diners when the size of the plate was increased.
“You could put it the other way and say a bowl without a rim will more often be filled right to the edge, giving the perception of there being more,” he suggests.
It’s certainly true that restaurants have been experimenting with an unusual variety of plateware in recent years in an effort to more deeply engage the senses of their customers. It’s now common to have dishes served on chopping boards or slate – and now and again you might even have a meal presented to you on something as odd as a house brick.
“Bowl food”, says Spence, could be a reaction to the weirdness of these trends – but also an acknowledgement that plateware does matter and that some foods really do benefit from being served in a particular way.
The research and anecdotal reports all point to a common idea, though. These days, it’s not so much about what you eat – but how you eat it.
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