Everywhere I turn, the word mouthfeel pops up. I see it in my Twitter feed. I hear it bandied about by my foodie friends. It shows up in my reading. Like in “Biter”, a short story by Kristen Roupenian in her debut collection You Know You Want This.
Ellie is a biter. She is an equal opportunity chomper, happy to sink her incisors into friends and family. This presents problems and so Ellie eventually learns to curb her actions but not her desires. She fantasizes about her teeth in the neck of Corey Allen, the new office manager. He would, no doubt, object.
But Ellie wouldn’t answer, because her mouth would be too full of Corey Allen’s sweet and gamy flesh. Not that it had to be his neck. She wasn’t picky about location. She could bite Corey Allen on his hand, or his face. Or his elbow. Or his ass. Each would have a different taste, a different mouthfeel; a different proportion of bone to fat to skin; each would be, in its own way, delectable.Kristen Roupenian, “Biter” in You Know You Want This (Jonathan Cape 2019)
All right, that’s it. Now I need to know what exactly mouthfeel is.
The word itself is such an awkward one, it’s hard not to think it’s a bad translation. But from what language? The Language Log is a group blog hosted by the University of Pennsylvania. There I find an extensive and pretty amusing post by Victor Mair about the etymological origins of the word mouthfeel.
The first recorded use of the English word mouthfeel is in 1939. The Oxford English Dictionary describes mouthfeel as a food property like “tenderness in meat, crispness in biscuits, smoothness in chocolate.” By contrast, the Chinese kŏugăn (口感) (literally, mouthfeel) does not appear in Chinese sources until sometime before 1975 but not earlier than 1950.
What then of the German word Mundgefühl, which is used to describe how something, not necessarily edible, feels in the mouth? Or the French term sensation de bouche? Mair is unable to find any hard evidence that either European language predates the English.
As it happens, the real source is Japanese, the same language that gave birth to the fifth taste, umami. Since 1628, the term kuchiatari has been in use to refer either to the texture of food or the qualities of a beverage in the mouth. In fact, there are plenty more Japanese terms, all of which could qualify as the mother of mouthfeel:
shitazawari, meaning tongue-contact, usually reserved for solid foods;
shokkan, meaning food-feel and most often translated in Japanese-English dictionaries as mouthfeel; and
nodogoshi, the sensation of food passing through the throat.
In the Laboratory
Taste for Life is an interdisciplinary research center founded by food scientist Ole G. Mouritsen and chef Klavs Styrbæk. The duo has also authored the book Mouthfeel: How Texture Makes Taste. They say that flavor has
a physical dimension: we sense and feel its structure. The perception of the physical dimensions of food is often completely unconscious, but we immediately become aware that it plays a role if the food is not as we expected; we react immediately on crisps that have gone soft, a gravy that has turned gritty, a piece of bread that is tough or a sip of tea that purses the lips because it has infused for too long.Ole G. Mouritsen and Klavs Styrbæk, “Mouthfeel – crucial to whether we like the food or not”, 2 Nov 2016 at Taste-for-life.org (accessed 7 Apr 2019)
We can thank our somasensory system for our mouthfeel. The nerve endings in our teeth tell use whether our food is crunchy or elastic. Our mouths contain more nerve receptors than anywhere else on the body. Those receptors register temperature, pain, touch, and pressure. Pain and touch are closely related, leading us to experience menthol and peppermint as cold while chili and black pepper feel hot.
Anyone who’s ever been to a wine tasting will recall the wide and weird descriptors used for wine. From flowers to grass to stall odors, metallic, astringent or oily. It’s possible for some of these sensations to register at the tip, the back or all over the tongue. Mouthfeel is often associated with wine. Or, as one snarky interviewee told the Language Log: mouthfeel is for “snobbish wine-tasting groups [with] elitist sensuality.”
At the Bar
Asian flush generally prevents me from drinking more than one glass of wine at dinner. The last time I tried hard liquor involved ice cream and me passing out on the floor of a TGI Friday’s. So the current craze for cocktails has totally passed me by.
Not so my friend Eric, who gave me this fab cocktail menu from Cold Drinks Bar. The signature drink alone looks like it’s worth the price of admission. The Sometimes Old Fashioned contains duck fat-infused Speyburn 10, Rittenhouse Rye, black pepper syrup, angostura, black lemon & candy cap bitters. Can you hear your taste buds exploding? Other offerings include Nothing Sacred, Yin & Yong, Sword Swallower, and Lucky Gold Coin.
In Thailand, a good bar snack is a bag of bugs. You can buy them from street food vendors who scour the cities on their motorbikes in search of customers. While the beverage of choice is usually an ice cold can of Thai beer, the variety of bugs for sale is over the top. You can choose your favorites and watch them be deep-fried, heavily salted and then sprayed in soy sauce or pepper.
In the Kitchen
I like to think of myself as an adventurous eater and a true addict of greasy goods. But I have to draw the line at bugs, big or small. A sea cucumber, in my eyes, is nothing more than a giant slug and nothing will compel me to eat it. I don’t like the mouthfeel of slimy and chewy.
Yet there are many dishes in the Chinese kitchen whose value rests almost exclusively on their mouthfeel. The Chinese have many words to describe the kinds of mouthfeel possible.
One beautiful Chinese word, cui, describes the wet, snappy crispness of chicken cartilage. A different word, su, is used for the shattering, fry-able crispness of roast pork crackling. The word nuo expresses the soft hugginess of long-cooked trotter, while hua describes slipperiness in the mouth.Fuchsia Dunlop, “Everything but the quack” in The Financial Times, 23/24 Mar 2019
Fuchsia Dunlop is my hero. Her cookbooks are my go-to resource when making Chinese food. I’ve also started following her on Instagram for the wild and wacky foods she eats. Pig Fallopian tubes, anyone?
At the end of the day, it’s better not to know what’s on a dish at a Chinese restaurant. Take duck’s tongue. If we knew what it was, we’d probably balk. Fuchsia Dunlop would say, wimp, just eat it.
Using your chopsticks or your fingers, pop the tongue, tip first, into your mouth and close your lips around it. Then use your tongue and teeth to bite and suck away the edible parts, noticing its intricacy with your lips and tongue. Simply try, without preconceptions, to give yourself up to exploring the physical sensations, the springy succulence, the contrasts between hardness and softness, the feelings across your tongue.Idem
Now that’s mouthfeel.