Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Spice Literacy

UPDATE: Here is everything in a pot with a bottle of white wine. I think it ill be good. Sure is beautiful. Nouveau Conditum Paradoxum.

To illustrate how to administer a taste test and develop some statistically significant data to my food policy class, I emptied out the spice drawer the other day and had them sniff and taste a wide variety of spices. Admittedly some were pretty obscure, and I anticipated that a few spices no one would get. Medieval cassia buds I don't think anyone would recognize nowadays, though the taste should be familiar, even to 18 year olds.

The hypothesis I was testing was whether US born students would have less experience using or seeing whole spices than foreign born students, of which I have a lot in this class. It's not exactly a question of deskiling since few have a lot of experience in the kitchen, but merely familiarity with ingredients and what they look like whole. Or at the very least smell and taste recognition, since many of these they definitely would have eaten before.

There were 18 students and 25 spices. The average number of correct answers in the class was 3. The highest score was 7 and the lowest 1. Not surprisingly 14 (77.7%) recognized a pepper corn. And 16 (88.8%) recognized a cinnamon stick. It was true cinnamon, incidentally. But the numbers fall off dramatically after that. Only 9 (50%) could recognize (by taste and sight) chili flakes, even though they came out of a pizzeria packet. 3 (16.6%) identified cloves. 2 (11%) knew star anise, though they were broken, so maybe that threw people off. 2 knew fennel seeds. And only one person in the class (5.5%) could name one of the following: juniper, bay leaf, Sichuan pepper. None one could identify vanilla, which really surprised me, or mustard seeds, or coriander, cardamom or saffron. Or even nutmeg.

Obviously we were dealing with much too small a statistical sample to be significant, but the highest scores were indeed from foreign-born students. Expectedly, the Chinese students recognized things more common there, like star anise, Sichuan Pepper corns and chili, and one got 5 correct, a Student born in Mexico recognized the highest number (7), with a few names in Spanish, but that's fine. The Korean students and an Indian student scored about the same as everyone else. But not suprisingly, American students did the worst on this. I'm not sure what it proves beyond inexperience in the kitchen, which I knew was the case, but even inexperience with flavors and knowing what they look like. They were all surprised when I told them the long shriveled black thing was vanilla; they could recognize the smell but not name it. Remarkable huh?

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