A Love for Exotic Flavours

Enjoying exotic flavours nourishes the soul.

© Gina Müller/carolineseidler.com

The Love For Exotic Flavours

Enjoying exotic flavours nourishes the soul.

© Gina Müller/carolineseidler.com

For some of us, gastronomic journeys of discovery cannot be exotic enough, while others shy away from any taste adventure. These personal preferences, as it turns out, allow direct conclusions to be drawn about our personality. Let’s take a look back: 40 years ago, foods and dishes from beyond our immediate home region or country would have passed for exotic, enticing us with the allure of the unknown. Today we need pufferfish, deep-fried insects or some other off-piste snack to present unknown flavours, so global has our food supply become. This proves that the flavours themselves are secondary. In our context, it is the fact that it was and always will be about the unusual, the different, the novel which attracts many food lovers – and from a psychological point of view this is indeed a compliment for them.

Visionary adventures in food

As soon as small children become mobile, their scepticism towards unfamiliar foods increases – an evolutionary, biological protective function against the potential dangers of poisoning. However, the more our personalities evolve, the greater individual differences in taste preferences become. These are closely related to personality theories in psychology. One of the best-known and most researched models is the five-factor model by Costa and McCrae. It distinguishes between five characteristics – valid across all cultural and social differences – which can each be expressed to different degrees in people: openness to experience, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and extraversion.

People who have a preference for variety and like to try out new things are especially highly developed in the factor "openness to experience." They are also considered creative, visionary, often interested in aesthetic pursuits such as art, music and poetry, and attentive to their own and others’ emotions. On the other hand, people who like to play it safe – also when it comes to flavour – often have a higher expression in the dimension "neuroticism," tend to be insecure and nervous, tend to worry and be fearful, but are often characterised by high sensitivity.

"A love of exotic flavours directly indicates a positive personality. Pleasant memories and expereinces shape preference, thanks to a "fast lane” in the brain that connects smell and emotion. Training yourself to enjoy scent can lead to a more optimistic outlook on life."

© Gina Müller/carolineseidler.com

It is interesting to note that the characteristics "openness" and "neuroticism" decrease between the ages of 20 and 30. From a gastronomic point of view, this means that some people’s gustatory adventurousness decreases a little, while others dare to experiment. A study by the Nestlé Group on eating habits in Germany in 2009, showed that 64% of all respondents liked to eat dishes from other countries – among the younger cohort, however, the figure was as high as 78%. 

Neurobiologically, the Zuckerman model of the "sensation seeker" is also relevant for the desire for something new on and off the plate: this involves people who have a lower level of arousal in the brain and therefore subconsciously try to steer their brain activity constantly into the optimal range via new and stimulating situations. 

A direct route to the brain 

However, neurobiology also plays a role in other respects in the preferences we have for special dishes – or more precisely for their smells. The fact that the smell of food, spices and drinks once enjoyed in distant places or in the past can become a brief "holiday of the mind" is due to a kind of information super-highway between our nose and the limbic system: the region in our brain that processes emotions. 

Normally, sensory perceptions pass through the brain’s thalamus, the "gateway to consciousness." There, sensory stimuli are processed and only subsequently perceived consciously. However, our olfactory receptors also have a direct connection to the amygdala in the limbic system, where feelings are directly triggered and processed, and are networked with the hippocampus, where our memory is located. Because of these connections, it is not surprising that smells, and thus also food, can trigger such diverse emotions in us – from childhood memories to key moments experienced far away or long ago. 

Aroma for the soul 

If exotic foods can thus evoke such positive memories, the question arises: are they not the perfect break from everyday life, a little holiday from the humdrum? Psychological practice suggests that this works above all with people who see their glass as "half full" rather than "half empty." Pessimists tend to focus on what they don’t have – the real smell of the sea, the real sound of the ocean and the real holiday. Optimists, on the other hand, find it easier to enjoy the fact that they can taste the seafood and recall and "relive" the rest as memories from their minds. 

However, studies of Positive Psychology now indicate that optimism is also a matter of training and can be increased, for example, through regular gratitude exercises. It is worthwhile to focus deliberately and consciously on the things with which we are already blessed. Good food is one of them, of course. A love for exotic flavours thus can ultimately contribute to becoming more psychologically stable and resilient.