Any wild ideas for a synesthesia-themed dinner party?
March 5, 2012 7:34 AM   Subscribe

Speak, Cutlery! My flatmate and I belong to a very informal supper club, and it has fallen on us to prepare this Friday's meal. The theme... is synesthesia. Help us make this an unforgettable (and delicious) experience!

OK, so our diners aren't going to be really tasting shapes or seeing music*, but our goal is to overload their senses. We're hoping to get suggestions in three categories:
Environment We've tossed around ideas like blindfolding everyone for a course, having a break to smell perfumed pillows and covering the knives and forks with different textures. What other methods can we use to heighten the sensory experience without coming off like some weird, unethical psychology experiment? Lighting? Unusual seating? The dinner will be taking place in a spacious ground floor apartment, but we'll be eating in a cozy kitchen area.

Music We definitely need an amazing soundtrack. There are lots of musicians with synesthesia (Duke Ellington, Rimsky-Korsakov, Billy Joel?) but we'd like to play music that takes full advantage of every frequency. Prog? Experimental? Yodeling? This AskMe has some great suggestions, but if anything else comes to mind we'd love to hear it. Youtube links a plus because we'd love to make a playlist to take us through the evening and be able to share it afterwards.

RECIPES! We want to engage the spectrum of flavour, the immensity of taste. What recipes combine opposite, counterintuitive or confusing tastes to yummy effect? We'll need everything from starters to dessert. We have intermediate kitchen skills and the standard range of implements, and if possible we'd like to be able to buy everything at your average British supermarket - but lots of exotic stuff is available in London, so fire away.

BONUS POINTS for vegetarian-friendly options because we know that one of the diners is a herbivore, but we'd be happy to serve meat as a secondary main course. Eight people are expected to attend.
Please go wild with your suggestions! My research has turned up a lot of Futurist cookbook stuff, which is generally impractical, as well as "gross" food, but that's not quite what we're after; while the combinations and tastes should be unexpected, we're not looking to make anything inedible. The music and environment stuff are icing on the cake.

While I can only hope you have lexical → gustatory synesthesia, please read my thanks and taste the sweet gratitude!

*Secretly dosing your friends with LSD is just gauche.
posted by Chichibio to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Looking up stuff on molecular gastronomy may get you more traction. While a lot of the stuff requires specialized tools and ingredients. You may get some ideas for cooking techniques or interesting flavor combinations.

Also, to go with the blindfold idea you might try with a blindfold taste/smell test. It is unbelievable how much visual cues affect how we taste things. (For instance, the flavor compounds between bananas and strawberries are so similar that most people–including wine connoisseurs–can't tell the difference without textural and visual cues.) Play with mixing flavors with textures normally not associated with them.
posted by thebestsophist at 7:46 AM on March 5, 2012

I saw a roasted garlic and parmigiano panna-cotta recipie once that seemed like it could be a pretty good appetizer or a surprise faux-dessert.

You could try applying some molecular gastronomy ideas: I understand it's fairly easy to make "caviar" out of various vegetable or fruit purees. Maybe make a bright green caviar that looks like peas but tastes of mint or something like that.

Also, I've never dosed a guest with LSD.
posted by gauche at 7:48 AM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Maybe emulate one of those restaurants that serves food completely in the dark? Pair that with some space rock at a very low volume. Would be very immersive and exciting.
posted by jbickers at 7:48 AM on March 5, 2012

Best answer: This plays with the idea of fooling your nervous system, although it is just your taste bud level (making what was formally bitter taste sweet).

Try to see if you can find Synsepalum dulcificum there. I think that it would be interesting to end dinner on this theme. Everyone tastes the lemon, no eats the fruit,now try the lemon again.

More elaborate NY Times article about the topic.

posted by Wolfster at 7:53 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I came to suggest Miracle Fruit/Miracle Berry tablets, but Wolfster beat me to it. He mentioned the actual fruit instead of the tablets - I haven't actually tried either so can't really recommend one or the other. But it always sounded fun, and your question immediately reminded me of the "flavor tripping" parties that seemed to be a fad a couple years ago. If you can get some on short notice it could be a fun post-dinner activity.
posted by Roommate at 8:00 AM on March 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Less dramatically, I came to suggest:

Colorful foods: mashed sweet potatoes or yams, beets (tasty with balsamic vinegar).

Noisy foods: things with a lot of crunch (Rice krispies, wasabi peas), pop rocks candy, squeeky cheese (I think maybe "quik")

Tell us what you do!
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 8:09 AM on March 5, 2012

Seconding miracle fruit.

For music, I would suggest Tuvan throat singing, or anything else that relies on overtones.
posted by Madamina at 8:09 AM on March 5, 2012

Nthing miracle fruit. I tried the fruit tablets from Think Geek and they worked great.
posted by mmmbacon at 8:13 AM on March 5, 2012

Best answer: A receipe that has an unexpected counter intuitive taste? Try this:

1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil
1 lb uncooked deveined peeled medium shrimp, thawed if frozen, tail shells removed
1/4 cup sliced green onions (4 medium)
1 fresh jalapeño or serrano chile, seeded, finely chopped
1 teaspoon grated orange peel
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1 can (14.5 oz) fire roasted diced tomatoes, undrained

If you ramp up the orange peel and include some of chile seeds, it's one wild taste ride. Serve it it on a bed of rice, couscous or risotto.
posted by lstanley at 8:28 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Some ideas:

One approach might be to think of each course as an experience; I'm thinking of Blumenthal's famous snail porridge which is as close to standing in a spring garden at dawn as I can imagine on a dinner plate. Rich earthy undertones, a light fresh dewy herbiness, small wild mushrooms, that sort of thing. For a vegetarian twist, marinated and roasted shiitakes might do very well instead of snails.

To return to your 'intensely flavoured' request: one thing I've seen done extremely well is drinking straws filled with a tiny shot of some incredibly intense consomme. If you're skilled about it, you could even alternate flavours in the straw, say a rich mushroom soup followed by a balsamic reduction, followed by the soup again, and finally some creme fraiche as a stopper at the end.

Durian might be a step too far for some.

If you do find miracle fruit, I suggest combining it with your 'in the dark' course, so that the lights can come on and people realise they've been eating lemons.

If you're not familiar with agar-agar, that's what they use to make warm (not hot) jellies. I find it difficult to work with but others don't seem to. Available in the Clearspring Japanese range; I've seen it at Planet Organic etc. Eg: this recipe, if you can find green almonds on Edgware Road, or substitute something else. Actually that recipe doesn't use agar agar at all and looks pretty easy.
posted by tavegyl at 8:42 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I made this baked tapioca brulee last night. The flavor was great. I added some vanilla to the recipe. When you look at it whole, it looks like a regular creme brulee. However, upon scooping into it and taking a bite, the texture is very different than a creme brulee.

I don't know how common it is, but I find that a basic Chile Colorado, which has 1/4c to 3/4c chile powder to the final 2c sauce, tastes brown to me. It is not an issue of heat. It just tastes brown. YMMV
posted by onhazier at 8:50 AM on March 5, 2012

I came by to suggest Miracle berry tablets and some modernist processes, but have gotten soundly beaten to the punch. I'll just say that a lot of the modernist stuff does play with multiple sensory inputs as a part of the overall experience of a dish...

I'm thinking of the Waygu Steak course at Alinea, where the centerpiece/vaselike object is part of a dry-ice fog with smoke scent that envelopes the table as you eat. It's a very clever way to use smell as a part of the taste sensation...Alinea also does this (as do other modernist restaurants) with air-filled pillows supporting plates that slowly release a complimentary scent as they deflate.

You could go a long way playing with altering the look of the food and the smell of the food in compliment to the taste of it. Sounds like an amazing dinner!
posted by griffey at 9:21 AM on March 5, 2012

Best answer: Can you get some black or other dark wine glasses? I read an article about a wine tasting where the glasses were black, and the (trained) tasters couldn't reliably tell whether the wine was white or red.

Put spices and herbs, maybe other ingredients, in teacups, and have people guess the ingredient. Turmeric, cumin, allspice, cardamom, fennel, fenugreek, star anise, etc.

Instead of blindfolds, can you turn off the lights and eat with only a few small candles? Or use different colored bulbs that would affect the color?

Create a scent menu by putting spices in a pot of simmering water for things like cinnamon and vanilla, and by sauteing garlic and/or onions, or even by grinding black pepper or other spices. Change the scents to contrast or complement the course. You can put fresh cilantro, parsley, green onion/chive, etc., in small vases on the table as the centerpiece, and asking guests to pass them occasionally.

I'm not a fan of flower-y food, but you could end with various herb teas, chamomile, ginger, spearmint, lemongrass, jasmine, etc., and maybe even lavender or rose-scented teas.

Buy cheap washcloths, dampen them with lemon or lavender water, roll and tie with a ribbon, and microwave them(not *too* hot) for a nice between-courses alternative to finger bowls.

Sounds like a lot of fun.
posted by theora55 at 11:57 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just a personal anecdote about the Miracle Berries - I bought them for my family to try, and the other three members in my house thought it was cool while I almost threw up from the wrongness of it. Seriously, it did not sit well with my taste buds and general world view, in a very not pleasant way. I ended up having to just not eat until the taste wore off.
posted by vegartanipla at 12:40 PM on March 5, 2012

As others have suggested, the interaction between smell and taste seems like the easiest sensory channel for experimentation. One of the most useful wine tasting exercises I've tried involved isolating different flavor and aroma descriptors by smelling wine glasses filled with small amounts of berries, dirt, black pepper, grass, and so forth. How about serving a few smells alongside the food?
posted by ecmendenhall at 1:33 PM on March 5, 2012

The boring and obvious answer is to serve at least one course made primarily of oranges. Because, you know - it's both a color and a taste.
posted by ErikaB at 1:39 PM on March 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

I get that you're going for the dramatic of course, but eating is already pretty close to synesthesia (food can be hot,rough and smooth, you can "eat with your eyes" etc).

How about serving something extra crunchy, proposing a "toast" and then having everyone bite down together? They're consuming the sound with the meal! Or slurping noodles? Or building on the pop rocks suggestion - have a dish where a liquid needs to be poured over (a gravy perhaps) which then sets off the pop rocks, like a savory Snap Crackle Pop. I feel like there has to be a good idea involving mint (so cold it cuts) or chilis (a dull heat). Maybe a spicy ice cream or chili limeade that cools you down then heats you up?
posted by synapse at 1:54 PM on March 5, 2012

I think I'd go somewhere along the lines of the surreal gourmet. Make a dinner pancake, maybe with a demiglace syrup. Then for desert, I'd serve something that looked like dinner, but was more of a plated dessert, maybe a cake shaped like a steak, a cream puff designed to look like mashed potatoes with a molten center, orange liqueur candies with a chiffonaded mint leaf designed to look glazed carrots. It is tough to pull off look-a-like foods, and you really need to sell it. I wouldn't do it if I didn't have time to test a proof of concept before the occasion...
posted by Nanukthedog at 3:06 PM on March 5, 2012

Best answer: Don't forget cold food and spicy hot food. You could do a cold soup, and then tiny dishes of sorbet between courses. A flambe dish? Can you find edible flowers--nasturtiums for salad, candied violets, etc? Of course, you'll need finger foods--maybe even eating something like a pudding with fingers? I've had meditation classes where you eat just one raisin and concentrate on the flavor; eat a cracker and concentrate on the crunch, etc. End the meal with delicate aromatic teas.
posted by BlueHorse at 5:29 PM on March 5, 2012

Best answer: One note on miracle fruit: miraculin appears to be fat-soluble, because at least in my experience, dark chocolate was a reliable way to end the effect of the miracle fruit.

There used to be a novelty soda called Mind Trick that was either purple orange soda or orange grape soda. Something like that would be kind of cool.

Alternately you could try to find some way to combine what would otherwise be difficult pairings, like orange sherbet with a mild mint flavor to it or something (and let's be fair, orange juice after something minty like brushing your teeth is like a tritone you can eat).

Cold soup? I've had spicy iced chicken-soup-based ramen, which was definitely unique.

For dessert, you could consider either a savory or spicy ice cream or other frozen dessert; maybe a frozen mala flavor?
posted by DoctorFedora at 9:41 PM on March 5, 2012

Best answer: Coming back to say, one of the more intense taste sensations I've had in the past weeks is the Turkish drink called shalgam. Once one gets over the fact that it's an iced garlicky turnip soup served in a soft drink bottle, it's actually quite nice. Available in Turkish shops and restaurants in Dalston.
posted by tavegyl at 1:35 AM on March 6, 2012

Goat cheese (or other savory) ice cream!
posted by dizziest at 8:00 AM on March 6, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everybody for all the amazing answers! Thanks to y'all we had a fantastic dinner, but I will admit that in swinging for the fences I may have overhyped the meal to my fellow diners and didn't quite capture the experience that I had concocted in my head. Which leads to the best piece of advice I can offer future synesthetic chefs attempting this:

Leave yourself lots of time for planning.

I only had a week, and my flatmate didn't pitch in as much as I had hoped. The biggest disappointment was not being able to procure the miracle fruit everybody raved about here; we couldn't find it store-bought, and by the time we figured that out it was too late to mail-order. A shame since it sounds so fun, but we've since decided to have a separate "tasting party" event with plenty of planning ahead of time in order to take advantage of this great tip.

That left me and my actual cooking skills, no trickery. Here's a breakdown of the menu I went with:
Heart_on_Sleeve's comment inspired the opener: Japanese chili crackers, haloumi cheese dyed red and green, and good old PopRocks. These were a big hit since most folks either had never tried them before or hadn't eaten them since childhood. Highly recommended.

• I wanted to follow up with a cold, funky-tasting soup like DoctorFedora suggested, but I couldn't find a decent recipe for "spicy iced chicken-soup-based ramen" - any suggestions for finding one would be appreciated! I did some hunting and came up with this mango chipotle recipe. Not the coolest source I know, but it turned out great: the way the chipotle clings smokily to the underside of the mango's sweetness is both refreshing and disorienting. Careful with the chipotle powder though, it's easy to use too much and completely overpower the mango. I got an angry email from a friend I recommended it to: he described the soup he made as "nastiness in a cup". Different strokes, I guess.

• Next was a recipe that I quite enjoy, bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with cheese. This isn't the exact recipe I used since I've made them before and just muddled ahead, but it gives you the idea. Decadent sugar-salt-mush overload... of deliciousness.

tavegyl's idea for green almonds in cucumber gelée sounded awesome, but again, without much time it was a real scramble to find green almonds. Then we discovered that they're not in season yet, so ha! I substituted normal almonds and enjoyed a real hilarious battle making gelatin for the first time. This was probably the least popular dish, I think because it was basically a pure flavour heaped onto jelly. Maybe the green almonds make the dish? I guess I'll have to try it again soon, as they're only available "for an 8 week period in the early growing season from April to mid June".

• Main course time: lstanley's shrimp risotto. I used a bed of cous cous instead of rice, and added the shrimp separately so as to spare the vegetarian diner. (I also gave him dates stuffed with cheese sans bacon.) Anyway, this dish was a real hit, and the neutrality of the cous cous really helps to highlight the intensity of the sauce. I'm a real heat freak and have had problems making my dishes too spicy for folks, so I cut back on the chile, but I should have had a second taster since the orange ended up overwhelming the spice and the sauce lost a bit of its complexity. Again, something worth attempting twice.

• For dessert we went back to DoctorFedora's comment and blended a bunch of fresh mint leaves and a whole orange to drizzle over lemon sorbet. Garbled communications meant we ended up with ice cream instead, and this is a mistake; the cream gets melty quick and doesn't sit well with the chilled minty orange sauce. But this was so good that we tried it again a few weeks later with sorbet and yes, it's as intense and delicious as it sounds.

• For a hilarious denoument, we picked up the şalgam recommended in tavegyl's follow-up. This may have been the most memorable thing on the menu... turns out şalgam is an intense, murky, spicy red carrot juice that honestly smells like used gym socks! I found it quite tasty (after getting over the smell) but most diners couldn't stomach it. A perfect ending to the meal!
I made a long, complicated playlist of drone-y electronics, Ken Nordine spoken word and various prog acts to set the mood, and between courses I had the diners pass around bowls of different extracts, like vanilla and almond, as an olfactory cleanser. It not being my house meant that I couldn't play with the lighting as much as I wanted, and the more "dramatic" suggestions you folks gave were pooh-pooh'ed, even if I thought they would be fun. Oh well.

All in all, a completely brilliant evening that I could not have pulled off as brilliantly as I did *ahem* if it hadn't been for you MeFites and your internet generosity. Thanks again, you're the greatest!

p.s. gauche, apologies for suggesting that you're a secret drug-doser of guests. What was I thinking?
posted by Chichibio at 4:31 AM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks, that's a great update. Sorry the almond and cucumber jelly didn't work out; it looked really fun. But lstanley's orange shrimp thing is now on my to-make-soon list.
posted by tavegyl at 3:48 AM on April 10, 2012

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