Victoria recently licensed 26 mobile food vendors to ply downtown residents and workers with grab-and-go lunches. Although a far cry from the 114 wheeled eateries licensed to operate on Vancouver’s downtown streets, it’s a welcome start.
Whether we’re eating tacos from the Puerto Vallarta Amigos truck at Yates and Wharf streets, snacking on a perogy sandwich from the Hungry Rooster on Courtney Street or buying lunch from other vendors, we’ve long credited our mouths for our ability to taste. The tongue’s taste buds are tiny locks awaiting to be fitted with the sweet, sour, salty, bitter or umami (meaty) keys that are now considered the five major taste groups.
However, our sense of taste contributes only the broadest brushstrokes to what we call flavour. Flavour, say researchers presenting at the American Chemical Society’s annual shindig, is a complex, intricate, sublime sensation combination.
It has a lot to do with our sense of smell. Our noses and their built-in odour-sensors are perfectly positioned above our pie holes to catch and decode the volatile flavour molecules that food releases.
But our other senses also influence our flavour perception.
Long before we smell food or fork it into our mouths, we use our sense of sight to predetermine what something will taste like. For instance, we look at a bowl of breakfast mush — I mean, porridge — and decide, based on our visual perception of colour, texture and how many large, gelatinous lumps it contains, whether we should get excited or dig out our stash of airplane woof-bags.
Ditto for stews or sausages. Face it, as delicious as boeuf bourguignon and smoked duck sausage are, both foods resemble something else decidedly non-delicious that our primal brains have, well, primed us to turn from in wrinkle-nosed disgust.
A number of scientists who like to mess with people’s minds have performed tests on the effect of visuals on our food-flavour perception. When the researchers coloured a popular white wine, sauvignon blanc, a deep red and served the doctored drink, study subjects described the flavours of a much richer merlot or cabernet.
The visual detractant in stews, sausages and oatmeal is powerful, but can be overcome. Memory and emotion, say the mind-messing researchers, affect food’s flavour as much as vision, touch, taste and odour do. If your mom served you spaghetti casserole when you were young, you might now turn to that dish as a comfort food. Then again, if you were the table’s reluctant diner on spaghetti-casserole nights, and your punishment was to watch siblings enjoy your serving of (dessert–blackmail) brownies, nothing will induce you to eat spaghetti casserole, now that you’re master of what you put into your mouth.
I speak from experience on this one.
Also from personal experience: Thanks to feeding my mother-in-law’s finicky cat Fancy Feast Flaked Tuna, I’ve sworn off tinned meats forever. Sight and smell memories can linger for years.
However, taste, as opposed to flavour, is subjective. In a study to determine kitty’s preferred food flavours, humans on a taste panel sampled 13 commercial cat foods. The panelists preferred cat food they thought tasted of tuna or herbs over those they described as “rancid,” “ofally” or “burnt.”
Which means when certain Generation X friends confide that their Freedom-95 retirement plans involve living on cat food, I can now point them in the right flavour direction.
The human desire for novelty and new experiences also helps us ignore what our eyes might be “tasting” and listen instead to our tongues and noses. So, while spaghetti casserole and cat food are definitely off my menu, I’ll willingly try octopus salad.
With Victoria’s street-food scene taking first steps toward the diversity seen in other Pacific Northwest cities, we can contemplate one thing:
It looks as if Victoria’s food scene is developing and diversifying, it feels as if it’s developing and diversifying, and it tastes and smells like it, too.
The new developments bring new and welcome flavour to the region.