The subtext on context

“What’s the weirdest food you have encountered?”. I suppose that’s a reasonable question if you write about food preferences – we all are fascinated by the unusual. And it is why I opened Taste Matters [1] with a description of hakarl, the (to me) repulsive Icelandic dish made from rotten shark meat. My more general answer, though, is usually disappointing: any food – including what you ate for lunch today – can be weird, depending on whom you ask. If rotten shark meat is a delicacy, who’s to say that roast chicken, or oysters, or flat bread topped with tomato, cheese, and tiny fish won’t seem like odd things to eat.

It is all about context. As food consumers, our focus is naturally on the foods that we eat. Are they tasty, healthy, interesting and so on? But if you shift focus from the food to consumers themselves, it becomes apparent that all responses to foods – likes, dislikes, strangeness - are relative …. to something. Even the question of whether a taste is strong or weak is only partly based in the food itself. Is your coffee very sweet? That’s merely a function of how much sugar you normally add to it – in other words, your memory of how sweet coffee should be. Is the dish too spicy? Probably not, if it is similar to what you normally eat. Your accumulated memories of what you have eaten, and in particular most recently eaten, provide an internal context against which a food or flavour can be said to be weak or strong, and hence pleasant or unpleasant.

Similarly, our past experiences with foods and the combinations of tastes, aromas, textures and colours that typically occur lead to expectations prior to eating. Violating these expectations can lead to a variety of outcomes, depending on the context. At a purely perceptual level, it is easy to demonstrate that a lime-flavoured drink will be identified most often as berry-flavoured if it is coloured red. On the other hand, a colourless drink will be judged as less intense in flavour. We tend to trust our eyes more than our ability to identify flavours. Such demonstrations can be a source of embarrassment when this is done with wine enthusiasts, who will talk at length about the cherry, blackberry and tobacco notes of a white wine to which red food colouring has been added.

Confounding expectations is not always a bad thing. A favourite traveller’s tale concerns the tiny restaurant found in a back alley of a small town off the beaten track in an exotic location. The seating was fruit crates, the waiter spoke only the local language, and the kitchen wasn’t large enough for two people. The food, however, was sensational and produced an enduring memory of a great meal experience. Of course, we can have great meal experiences at Michelin-starred restaurants in major cities, but it is the surprise element – the wonderful flavours
despite the context – that provide both the additional pleasure, and a way of locking it into our memory. Moreover, our surprise meal transported to a different context – say, a plush restaurant with formal service – is far less likely to be memorable precisely because our expectations for fine food were met exactly. Consumer scientist Herb Meiselman showed some years ago that the pleasantness of the same meal would be judged quite differently served in different contexts such as a restaurant, a canteen or in a hospital setting [2].

Part of the enjoyment of our exotic-location meal derives, of course, from the idea of authenticity. The food takes on an added pleasure if we feel that we are experiencing what the locals experience. This is such a common pursuit these days that authenticity – real or perceived - becomes a selling point and sometimes also a way of subtly pushing us towards particular food choices. What’s more appealing: long noodles with meat sauce or
tagliatelle a la Bolognese? One is just a meal but the other is an ethnic meal (unless you are from Bologna, of course). And what would you rather drink with it? Even if you can afford to order a nice Burgundy, doesn’t the idea of the unknown local red wine – the owner’s selection – draw your interest just that much more? A great wine versus a wine experience.

The influence of a context doesn’t have to be subtle. Most people can convince themselves about the added appeal of a meal in a restaurant in which a few cultural stereotypes are on display over the same meal cooked at home or in a generic restaurant environment. Rude waiter – check. Brass fittings – check. Edith Piaf soundtrack – check. Yes, this is not a steak, chips and wilted lettuce leaf, it’s a genuine
steak frites. Sophisticated and worldly diners might expect themselves to be immune from such obvious influences: their focus is on the food, the technique, the playful presentation. But the cues to context that set up expectations are not necessarily open to conscious inspection. One study, for example, examined the impact of playing French or German style background music on alternate days in the wine section of a supermarket [3]. Despite the fact that when questioned, consumers were unaware of the type of music being played, German and French wines were more often purchased on days when German and French music, respectively, was played. The researchers’ quite plausible explanation is that the music activated other, unconscious, nationality-based associations that nudged the consumers towards the purchase of a wine that was congruent – that is, a good fit – with those associations.

This idea helps explain too how wonderful food or wine in one context totally fails to impress when removed to a different context. Sitting in the sun, watching the ocean, a piece of grilled fish on the plate and a glass of local wine in hand seems a perfect combination. Remove the sun, ocean and carefree thoughts, however, and the same wine seems like a very odd purchase to have brought home from holidays. These important contextual cues are now being explicitly utilized by some chefs who have recognized that eating is a multisensory experience, the pleasure of which is enhanced by an environment that stimulates our senses and activates memories of past experiences. A well-known example of this is apparent in a dish entitled “The Sounds of the Sea”, created by British chef Heston Blumenthal [4]. The diner listens to the sound of waves on the shore (via an iPod hidden in a conch shell) to accentuate the visual presentation of seafood on a tapioca-based ‘sandy beach’, with a vegetable and seafood based foam as the rolling waves. The result is a multisensory immersion in sights, sounds, odours, textures and tastes with contributions from memories and emotions that evoke warm feelings of nostalgia for days on the seashore.

An ethnic theme in a restaurant may influence our food selection and enjoyment, but our actual culture is really the key context through which food preferences are formed and foods are interpreted. Around 30 years ago, food psychologist Paul Rozin and his wife, food writer Elizabeth Rozin, formulated the idea of culturally-based flavour principles by asking two important questions [5]. The first of these was whether each culture’s cuisine could be defined in a list of key ingredients and cooking styles that distinguished it from all other cuisines. Essentially, what they wanted to know was what made Italian food
Italian or Greek food Greek and, for example, if we ate a chicken dish each from Italy, Spain and Greece, what would be the essential features that would allow us to know their origins. After all, each of these cuisines uses olive oil, garlic and tomato in their cooking, so they are in many ways similar. But we can still see differences between them in the use of different herbs and spices such as oregano, basil, rosemary, chilli, paprika, saffron, thyme, parsley, fennel and so on. Even when there is overlap in the types of spices used, there will be different combinations and emphases in the cultures for different dishes. Of course, when cultures are geographically more remote, or the history of influences is dramatically different, the differences in flavour principles become more obvious.

Secondly, the Rozins asked whether flavour principles might have some purpose, other than being merely a matter of convenience is using whatever ingredients were locally available. They proposed that flavour principles actually performed a vital, biologically important function (apart from making chicken more interesting to eat). They recognized that all of us tend to be rather wary of incorporating new foods into our diet – the scientific term is food neophobia – an evolutionary hangover from our time in the wild where new plants could as often be poisonous as nutritious. But given that even in more modern times, the environment is not always friendly to food sources, and it pays to be flexible and be able to incorporate new sources of proteins and plant foods in the diet. Cooking in a familiar way, with familiar ingredients, converts a potential source of neophobia into a recognizable dish that is more likely to be accepted than rejected as unfamiliar.

The members of each culture learn that the flavour is the acceptable context for the various ingredients that provide sources of protein – whether it be chicken, fish, insects, rotten shark, tripe – and other nutrients. And this learning takes place even before we are born. Research over the past two decades has shown that flavours are passed from a mother’s diet into the amniotic fluid surrounding a foetus. Importantly, this provides exposure to, and hence familiarity with, these flavours that can be seen in the preferences of the baby at the time of weaning. Foetal exposure to the flavour of a vegetable such as carrot will mean that carrot flavour is more readily accepted even when the infant is 2 years old. Of course, what the mother is doing is inadvertently passing of culturally-based food knowledge: the flavour principles of the mother’s diet become those of the infant. The culture of food thus is transmitted from generation to generation - but how such transmission will survive globalization of foods is unclear.


  1. Prescott, J., Taste Matters. Why we like the foods we do. 2012, London: Reaktion Books.
  2. Edwards, J.S., et al., The influence of eating location on the acceptability of identically prepared foods. Food Qual Pref, 2003. 14: p. 647-652.
  3. North, A.C., D.J. Hargreaves, and J. McKendrick, The influence of in-store music on wine selections. J Appl Psychol., 1999. 84(2): p. 271-276.
  4. Blumenthal, H., The Big Fat Duck Cookbook 2008, London: Bloomsbury.
  5. Rozin, E. and P. Rozin, Culinary themes and variations. Nat. Hist., 1981. 90(2): p. 6-14.