Last October I read a report about a kind of Asian pear that I'd never heard of--and then this last weekend I found it in the 99 Ranch Market in nearby Milpitas. It's different, delicious, and worth trying.
LAST week I went to Stanford University to hear a lecture on the molecular biology of smell, and then drove home buzzing with thoughts about what it might mean for people who love to eat.
The speaker, the Nobel laureate Linda Buck, never mentioned food. She gave an overview of the fast-developing understanding of smell, including the pioneering work for which she shared the Nobel in Physiology or Medicine in 2004. Along the way she explained how, given what is known about the way smells are represented in the brain, the combination of two aromatic substances could create a third smell sensation that would be unlike the smell of either of the partners. And she presented evidence that certain aromatic chemicals — amines, which are found in the bodies of all animals and also in a variety of foods — trigger a brain circuit of their own. They act as pheromones in other animals, and may do the same in humans.
I came away filled with new ideas about the alchemy of cooking. Can one flavor plus one flavor equal three flavors? How much of the effect of combining ingredients happens on the stove, and how much in people’s heads? Are there examples of this kind of virtual ingredient creation in familiar dishes? Can a rational awareness of flavor chemistry and amine circuitry influence and heighten our actual sensory experience of food? If we know more about how we smell, can we smell more? Does more sensation mean more pleasure?
In today's debut of my occasional column in the New York Times Wednesday food section, I write about the strange, blue-green colors that can develop when garlic and onions are handled in certain ways. The information in the column comes from several recent papers on the subject from labs in Japan and China. For readers who would like to follow up, here are a few (slightly confusing!) chemical details, and the references.