How receptacles and cutlery affect our eating and drinking experience
It’s Saturday night. A Chinese is on the way. The plates are ready, the soy sauce is out. But are you going to use cutlery or chopsticks?
If you’re in the UK, you’re probably using cutlery. Yet chopsticks are better for Chinese food, or any Asian cuisine, according to around a third of the world. And they can make your takeaway taste better, according to your brain.
It sounds ridiculous. Unless you can use chopsticks, they are fiddly and annoying and stop you getting a decent mouthful. Plus surely any food tastes exactly the same, whatever utensil is used?
Not so, says Garmt Dijksterhuis, PhD, who has spent thirty years pondering psychological and perception-based culinary puzzles. “For cultural reasons, people may feel some foods need to be eaten in a culturally appropriate way,” he says. “Forking it may feel inappropriate, which may negatively affect liking the food.”
It’s considered very unlucky to spear sushi with a chopstick, so forking it could risk being cursed for life. But Dijksterhuis also says many people may simply “be used to eating Chinese food with chopsticks, so their past eating behaviour means eating it without them feels cumbersome, or weird.”
Which would affect how much they like it. And from a deeper cognitive perspective, he says there are many “multi-sensory interactions that take place when food enters the mouth, including motor-activity, that may have perceptual psychological interaction effects. In theory, many such interactions can, and do, occur.”
Sensory food-scientist Kezia Cruz adds that the “same person could taste the same dish in two different moments and have a totally different experience. Context and environment matter, it’s why a meal eaten on holiday often tastes much better than the same meal does in front of your computer trying to meet a deadline.”
So how you eat your food, or where you eat it, can prove significant as to how it’s enjoyed. And so can the way it’s presented.
In the UK, a Chinese takeaway typically arrives in cheap plastic or foil trays, but whenever Chinese food is eaten on American TV shows or films, it’s always out of cute red and white cartons with a thin wire handle.
Dubbed ‘oyster pails’, because they resemble the traditional little buckets used to buy oysters in ancient China, they were invented in America in 1894 by an enterprising sweet-and-sour fan called Frederick Weeks Wilcox.
Inspired by origami, the single piece of card folds down into a plate and back up into a carton. Type ‘takeaway’ into your iPhone and an oyster pail emoji appears. Just thinking about them makes me want to eat Chinese. So why aren’t they routinely used in the UK?
Incredibly, only one UK chain does, Neds Noodle Bar in London, which was awarded the ‘Golden Chopsticks’ award for Best Takeaway in 2021. It uses the “original takeout boxes from New York,” says MD James Breslaw. “We are the only restaurant business in Europe to use them.”
Other chains, like Wok to Walk, use a similar shaped carton, but not the original with a handle, a printed pagoda, and the words ‘Thank you’ and ‘Enjoy’.
Breslaw used to work in NYC in the 1980s, “got a lot of Chinese takeaways” and fell in love with the cartons. “When we opened our first UK shop in 2000 we contacted Fold-Pak (America’s most popular supplier) and asked if they would ship them over. And they did.”
He says his customers love them too. “As many people order for the box as they do for the food. It’s the way we have always drawn people in and maintained their custom. They obviously enjoy the contents as well, but the boxes make us unique.”
So if they’re so popular with UK customers, and it’s easy to understand why, how come they’re the only ones in the UK using them?
The answer, depressingly, comes down to cost, he says. Given the amount a typical takeaway gets through, “why would you use something that costs 12p when you can use something that costs 0.2p?”
Because they are worth every penny. But no matter. Given their American roots, they technically don’t lend any genuine Oriental authenticity to the food. They are barely used in China.
The sensory scientists say all these perception-related cues, whether it’s chopsticks or an outstandingly clever carton, help the brain inform the human they are enjoying the food more than they otherwise might. But when it comes to the ‘vessel’ food is offered in, it’s a trick played on the mind, rather than having a tangible effect on the taste. The same is not true with drinks, however.
“The effect of the receptacle on the taste of drinks has been studied, and some effects of glass size, weight and colour do exist,” says Dijksterhuis. “Some drinks are affected, others are not; some tastes are amplified and others attenuated. It’s hard to find a system in this. But effects do exist.”
One of the most famous drinks of all, champagne, serves as a perfect illustration.
There is a good chance the last time you drank it, it was from a flute. Bad idea, says the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. It tested champagne eight times in four different glasses: a flute, a tulip-shaped flute, a white wine glass and a red wine glass, and the flute scored bottom. A typical white wine glass came out top.
But things are never that simple. Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan MW, which stands for Master of Wine (there are only 418 worldwide), the founder of Master Wine Online, and one of the most respected experts on wine, says her preference for a champagne glass depends on a “few factors”.
If she’s having a party with “lots of guests, and it’s a mix of people who know and don’t know about wine, it’s a straight champagne flute. They keep the bubbles a long time, because there is less open surface area at the top of the flute so the bubbles last longer.”
If she’s sipping a “vintage champagne” or a “bubbly with aromatics I want to savour” she opts for a tulip flute. “The curved-in design at the top retains the aromas, so when I stick my nose in the glass I get more of all those deliciously complex biscuity, toasty, spicy and mineral-like aromas.”
But when she’s feeling “in the mood for glam, and I want to treat myself, I go for a champagne coupe. It’s almost like having a martini glass tuliped at the top just for champagne. It has the most surface area so the bubbles dissipate the fastest, but it’s perfect for, say, a sparkling rosé. It ain’t lasting that long anyway.”
In other words, there is no single ‘correct’ answer. To any of it. Whether it’s chopsticks instead of forks or sipping champagne, when it comes to how our “brains process the stimuli we get from our five senses, anything is possible,” says Cruz.
“There is no straight line between what’s inside our mouth, between our fingers, close to our ears or nose or in front of our eyes, and what we perceive or interpret. Both our internal and external environment influence our senses and our perception of what we eat and drink.”
So perhaps it isn’t worth worrying too much about how you consume your favourite food or drink. Your own brain will tell you how much you’re enjoying it at the time.