Peruse the shelves of your kitchen and refrigerator, and you may be surprised by just how many smoke-flavoured products you come across. I took a peek in the pantry, and without even trying, unearthed smoked paprika, smoked salt, a tube of chipotle and a bottle of Kiwi-made liquid smoke. There was also a packet of smoked tea in the form of Lapsang Suchong.
The refrigerator was absolutely stuffed with smoked products (possibly because of the time of year – just after Christmas). There was a half roll of salami, three varieties of smoked cheese, sliced ham, and bacon. Some sea-food loving visitors had left behind cold-smoked salmon, smoked mullet, and an exotic-looking tin of smoked oysters. If Asian cuisine had been on their agenda, I would no doubt have discovered half a dozen smoked eggs.
Added to all this, my husband was out in the garden pulling beetroots (which we both enjoy in smoked beetroot salad) to go with a barbeque we were putting on for the neighbours. After all, there’s nothing more mouth-watering than the smell of grilling steak. If I’d taken stock of what was available in our kitchen later in the year, I would have discovered smoked garlic and bottles of our own preserved, smoked peppers. If we were expecting vegan guests to dinner, I would have had on hand smoked seitan bacon (a vegetarian meat alternative) and vegan smoked cheese. The big question is, why do we enjoy smoked foods so much?
As it turns out, we don’t so much taste smoke as smell it. That’s because there isn’t actually a responder in the brain for the taste of smoke. When we sample food or drink, taste receptor cells in our taste buds transmit the ‘findings’ to our brain. Our brain rapidly identifies the common flavours of sweet, sour, salty, bitter or umami (the taste of amino acids). But smoke isn’t on that list so why do we enjoy it so much?
The answer is that flavour is actually more than just taste. The enjoyment of food also includes texture and smell – and most of the enjoyment of smoke comes from the latter. That doesn’t mean that taste is completely absent in smoked foods (the sugar and amino acids present in some grilled foods also contributes to enjoyment), but it does mean that smoke offers us a particular scent treat.
That’s the science behind our ‘tasting’ smoke – but we still haven’t answered the question of why we enjoy it so much. To do this, we have to delve further and indulge in a bit of guesswork. Throughout history, smoke (apart from smoke that signals the danger of devastating fires) has been experienced in the most comforting of situations. It was smoke that preserved fish and meats for our cave-dwelling ancestors, and promised the hope of sustenance and survival through long, cold winters. Smoke accompanied fires that warded of dangerous animals. Whether in a cave dwelling or a contained hearth, smoke was (and still is) part and parcel of the fire that delivers warmth and comfort.
Could it be, then, that smoke triggers ancient, enjoyable memories lodged within our brain? Our senses are located in the limbic structure of the brain – a part of the organ which has been identified as occurring in the very first mammals, and which is responsible for long-term memory. Is our enjoyment of smoked-foods something which is lodged in our very DNA? While the answers have yet to be clarified, one thing is certain; when it comes to smoked-foods and beverages, we have plenty to choose from and a great deal of pleasure awaiting us.