How Food Can Unlock Memories

The author Ryu Murakami crafted a tale about “omelette rice.” A chanteuse grows fixated on a restaurant during her performances in Paraguay, all because of its offering of omelette rice. The female singer harbors an almost irrational fondness for this dish. When pressed by others, she divulges the reason for her preference. In her youth, her family was not well-off and rarely dined out, save for their weekly visits to a department store where a restaurant, owned by a friend of the singer’s father, was located. Every time they went, the family would eat at this restaurant, and she would always order omelette rice. Whenever she did, the proprietor would place a small flag on her dish, but not on anyone else’s. It was because of these cherished memories that the female singer grew to adore omelette rice so much.

Brian Wansink, a scholar at Cornell University in the United States, related an anecdote regarding food. After World War II, veterans who had served in the Pacific region displayed peculiar reactions to Asian cuisine, such as rice. Upon returning to the United States, they would either take a liking or a disliking to it. What accounted for these divergent attitudes? Wansink’s research team focused on 261 veterans who had served in the Pacific War and frequented veterans’ clubs, where they had consumed a lot of Asian food. Of these veterans, 56% enjoyed Asian cuisine, but Wansink discovered that they shared no common traits, be it in terms of origin or education. After much probing, he finally uncovered the answer from those veterans who did not relish Asian food. They had no common characteristics in regards to origin or education, but they did share one thing in common: they had all taken part in frequent, intense, and brutal close combat. Such experiences resulted in feelings of anxiety and discomfort when consuming Asian cuisine. Even after more than half a century, the mere thought of local food stirred up memories of the savage and bloody wars they had fought in.

On the other hand, those soldiers who enjoyed Asian food were typically non-frontline combatants, such as machine repairers and civilians. When they returned home, they did not have as much psychological baggage, and thus did not harbor a distaste for those foods.

It turns out that food is akin to a key, unlocking memories that have long been forgotten, be they beautiful, cruel, or mundane. This phenomenon is related to the way our brains operate. When our brain stores information, it also stores the setting in which the information was acquired. Before we realize it, our brains have subconsciously amassed a host of sentiments and impressions from our surroundings. For example, if you visited your grandmother every summer vacation when you were young, and there was a cold drink shop beside her house that served delectable vanilla ice cream, which your grandmother always bought for you, then whenever you taste vanilla ice cream in the future, it will remind you of your grandmother. Stored in your cerebral cortex are a series of images related to these events: the sweltering sun and gentle breeze of summer vacation, the signage of the cold drink shop, the hum of the ice machine, the taste of the ice cream and juice. When a particular memory is triggered, the information will be replayed in the brain in the order in which it was stored at the time. Thus, when you sample vanilla ice cream as an adult, you relive the memories of your teenage summer vacations and the moments you spent with your grandmother.

Hence, when we consume certain foods, we recall the emotions and scenes associated with those foods. Eating in pleasant or unpleasant settings can influence our assessment of food. These memories may also remain with us for life.