Menu advice: Serve Bouba wine with Kiki food

The Bouba/Kiki effect applies to smells, according to a recent report in Chemical Senses:

Grant Hanson-Vaux, Anne-Sylvie Crisinel and Charles Spence, “Smelling Shapes: Crossmodal Correspondences Between Odors and Shapes,”Chemical Senses(2013) 38 (2): 161-166.doi: 10.1093/chemse/bjs087

Crossmodal associations between 20 odors (a selection of those commonly found in wine) and visual shape stimuli (“kiki”/“bouba” forms) were investigated in a sample of 25 participants (mean age of 21 years). According to the present report, two of the odors were found to be significantly associated with an angular shape (lemon and pepper) and two others with a rounded shape (raspberry and vanilla).

The bouba/kiki effect demonstrates the synesthete in all of us:  Most people, when asked to apply the sounds “kiki” or “bouba” to shapes, say the pointy shape is “kiki” and the rounded one is “bouba.”


Kiki (left); Bouba (right)
Köhler, W (1929). Gestalt Psychology.. New York: Liveright.; Bouba/Kiki effect, Wikipedia entry

It is interesting that vanilla and lemon were strongly associated with the shapes.

One can get philosophical about vanilla. Vanillin and hot-chili pepper capsaicins are chemically related because both have a vanillyl group. Many vanillins bind to vanilloid receptor 1 – and (to oversimplify) binding to vanilloid receptor 1 can result in pain — or anesthesia. Ying or yang. Being or nothingness. So both boubas and kikis bind to the same receptor. Whoa.

Lemon is pretty straight forward. Inhaling lemon shortened sleep time in barbiturate-fed rodents, whereas valerian and rose lengthened sleep time. (Here).  In humans, lemon odor increased “theta” brain waves in the right hemisphere (here). “Theta” brain waves are associated with learning and memory and general readiness.  Refreshing!

Lemon is the non-rhyming “orange” of the food world in that it is a particularly difficult flavor to match with wine, according to people who know a lot about such things.  One reason is that wine is generally acidic — naturally “kiki” if you will.

Two strategies are suggested: one, just go with the opposite kind of wine — a smooth, non-acidic wine paired with lemony food. In other words, drink “bouba” wine with “kiki” food.

The other strategy is to alter the food to add something with which wine would match, such as cream or salt. In other words, change “kiki” food to “bouba” flavored before serving “kiki” wine.

Be that as it may, the authors of the study mention that there may be useful implications for labeling wine or perfume. Will we see the bouba/kiki labeling scheme for wine? We vote yes.  In fact, since we’ve moved to NoCal from SoCal, we were pleasantly surprised to see that our neighborhood 24-hour Safeway has wine tastings! Who wants to read words at the Safeway wine tasting? No one. You want to sit around and drink wine and forget what you came to the Safeway for.  Shapes = good.

Interestingly, a US trademark search turned up an abandoned application filed bysome Belgium company for KIKI BOUBA scientific food testing. Will we see KIKI or BOUBA – branded wine? It would be an interesting marketing campaign, anyway.

Kiki Bouba