ABC / Chefs / Researchers / Scientists

How unlocking the joys of ‘slimy, slithery and rubbery’ food can bring you joy – and improve your quality of life

There are some people who would be nervous to hear the food they are about to eat has “a high grapple factor”.

Fuchsia Dunlop is not one of them.

Dunlop is a celebrated expert in Sichuan cuisine and the author of a number of bestselling cookery books.

An ingredient like duck tongue, she explains, requires a diner to use their tongue and teeth to “grapple” with the food, working hard to separate the bouncy flesh from the slender spikes of cartilage.

Duck tongues are placed on a plate - they're long, ending in tentacle-like pieces and served glazed with a salad on the side
When serving people dishes like duck tongues, Dunlop asks them to put aside their prejudices and instead concentrate on the sensation in their mouth. (Getty Images: dashu83)

Paying attention to texture, even when it might seem unappealing at first, can have a big impact, Dunlop tells ABC RN’s Blueprint for Living.

“If you can develop an appreciation of texture for itself as another dimension of gastronomy, then not only will it open the door to fully appreciating this great cuisine of China – but also it’s just life enhancing.”

But are we predisposed to enjoy some textures over others?

And why do experts argue there’s a connection between texture and undernourishment, depression and anxiety, and life during chemotherapy and COVID-19?

Cruncher, chewer, sucker or squisher?

In her memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, Dunlop dedicates a whole chapter to the importance of texture and mouthfeel in Chinese cuisine.

She describes the “cui” or crispness of fresh crunchy vegetables, the “tan xing” or springy elasticity found in food such as squid balls, and the “shuang” or texture that “evokes a refreshing, bright, slippery, cool sensation in the mouth”.

A woman wearing a patterned dress stands with her arms crossed and a slight smile on her face
Fuchsia Dunlop makes trying new textures a part of the “intentional pursuit of pleasure”. (Getty Images via Corbis: Colin McPherson)

These are not things she’s always been well-versed in.

“There were a whole lot of ingredients that were initially incomprehensible to me,” Dunlop says.

These include some that Westerners tend to find revolting; ingredients that are “slimy, slithery, bouncy and rubbery”, like “the wet crispness of gristle, the brisk snappiness of goose intestines [or] the sticky voluptuousness of that reconstituted dried sea cucumber”.

“There was a period when I ate them without pleasure but just with some bafflement … and now I just love them,” says Dunlop.

Professor Russell Keast, director of the Deakin University CASS Food Research Centre, says texture is mainly perceived by a sense of touch and sound in the mouth.

He explains there are three different surfaces in the mouth that sense texture: the tongue, the hard palate and the gums.

In contrast, your fingertip, though sensitive, has only one surface that senses texture.

Also, the mouth has fewer types of nerves to detect mechanical sensations or differences in pressure (known as mechanoreceptors) than in the finger.

This means that while the mouth is excellent at sensing texture, we cannot assume it senses them in the same way our fingers do.

“So, there is a complexity to food texture that we do not fully understand,” Professor Keast says.

Two plates with pieces of fried cod alongside a salad of crunchy cucumber are placed on a table
We rely not just on smell and sight but also texture to tell us when our food is fresh and of a good quality, says Professor Russell Keast. (Supplied: Life Kitchen)

Add to this the role sound plays in how we perceive texture and things only get more complicated. 

Read the rest of the story here. First published by the ABC on June 27, 2022.