The Fifth Sense

Largely because N. and I are big kids (and because we really wanted to watch The Mandalorian), we now have a subscription to Disney+. This is not particularly newsworthy in the food part of my world, except that we opted for a bundle that included hulu which, if you’re not aware, seems to have all back episodes of Top Chef. In preparation for the new season in mid-March, and because I had exhausted many of my other binge-able options, I decided to go all the way back to the beginning.

In one episode during Season Two, Padma Lakshmi tells the contestants that cooking is perhaps the one art form that employs four of the five senses: sight, smell, taste, and touch. In doing so, she is distinguishing it as special. Unless you are in the habit of tasting your oil paints (don’t do this) or crunching on the inhaled marble dust of your sculpture (also inadvisable), taste is a sense not often used for artistic pursuits.

But I think Padma’s evaluation is wrong – or at least it’s incomplete. Yes, we use sight, smell, taste, and touch when we cook. But if we’re doing a good job, we also use our ears. While you can tell a pan of hot fat is ready for the main event by sight, because oil “shimmers” and, if you want to live on the edge, smokes, the easiest determiner of readiness is the sound that slab of meat, or pile of diced onions, or broccoli steak, makes when it touches the fat. Chef and Food Network personality Anne Burrell tells students of cooking that they should hear “rambunctious applause” when food goes into a properly preheated pan. A faint sizzle – or worse, no noise at all – simply means the oil or butter or lard isn’t sufficiently warmed to sear properly. That means we employ our ears as well.

Even when we are preparing food without cooking, hearing plays an important part. I can determine how crisp a leaf of romaine or a slice of cucumber is with my eyes and fingertips. But if I combine taste and sound when I bite through an experimental piece of it, I’m much more informed about how fresh my salad will be, and what kinds of other textures I should add for enjoyable eating.

And more than information, there is pleasure in the sound of food. The sigh of a just-cooked salmon filet when I flake it with a fork. The deliberation of a whisk against a metal bowl as I whip egg whites or cream. The steady thud of my knife on the board while I’m decimating a pile of herbs. When I indulge in a dish of crème brulee, I want to hear the glassy thin sugar crack at the tap of my anxious spoon. When I bite through a pickle, I want to hear a crunch as well as feel it between my teeth. There’s something satisfying about others knowing how much texture it had, and unless I’m keen to share, that can only be truly achieved through the sound it makes. The pop and fizz of a champagne bottle would be much less celebratory if you could only see, not hear, the explosive carbonation.

If you made a dish inspired by sound, what would it be? Which flavors would play together to give your food a voice, completing the five senses it requires to be fully experienced?