Have you ever tucked into a warm bowl of Pho and been transported back to the emerald terraces of Vietnam? Perhaps every time you eat a Portuguese tart you’re whisked back to the colourful facades of Lisbon. Or whenever you dig into fish n’ chips you remember your treasured family holidays at the seaside. We’ve all had that moment – just one bite and you’re taken to another world. But why are food travel memories so evocative? From brain connections and human survival tactics, to “Proustian moments” and nostalgia, we look at why food memories are so powerful – and how food helps you create long-lasting travel memories.
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Why are food memories so powerful?
When you eat, it’s not just about taste. Eating involves all our five senses, including sight, smell, touch, and even sound. When you’re totally engaged with all your senses, it makes sense that your travel memories become extra potent. In fact, one study found that over 53% of people remember how the food tasted on their travels. But that’s not the whole story…
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The brain link between taste and memory
Food memories are so strong because our brains actually connect taste with memory. A 2014 study found that our brains encode food memories with a time and place. Our taste cortex stores the tastes and then connects with the hippocampus (the area of the brain responsible for storing long-term memory) to create a map linking the food we eat to times, places, and positive and negative associations.
John S. Allen, the author of The Omnivorous Mind, also wrote about the powerful connection between food and memory. He found that the hippocampus has a strong link to the parts of the brain responsible for emotion and smell… Which is why one bite of tiramisu can take you right back to your holiday in Rome from years ago.
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Conditioned taste aversion
Ever got food poisoning and now can’t go near the food – or even the restaurant – that made you sick, even years later? That’s conditioned taste aversion. It’s a human survival tactic originating from our early ancestors, so if we ate an unknown plant that made us sick, we’d always remember to avoid it in the future. This conditioning passed down through generations of humans and now the brain wiring is so strong, that even if you get sick hours after you’ve eaten, your mind still forms memories about where and what you ate.
We can have emotional reactions when we eat foods that tap into deep memories from our past and a similar phenomenon can also apply to positive food memories. If you eat a custard tart, you may find yourself transported back to a deep, unconscious memory from your childhood, tucking into a bakery treat on a family road trip.
“We all have our food memories, some good and some bad. The taste, smell, and texture of food can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back memories not just of eating the food itself but also of the place and setting. Food is an effective trigger of deeper memories of feelings and emotions, internal states of the mind and body.”John S. Allen
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Sweet food memories
If you want to make your travel memories last forever, go for sweet foods. Allen found that sweetness activates the reward centres in our brains. Those reward centres then set off the hippocampus which turns one brief travel moment – such as eating a chocolate-dipped churro on the beach in Barcelona – into a deep, long-lasting memory you can relive every time you bite into a churro.
Nostalgia and food
But it’s not just about the taste – it’s about the feeling too. The whole food experience, including where you were and who you were with – adds nostalgic power to your travel memories. In his novel “In Search Of Lost Time”, Marcel Proust recounted how eating a madeleine cake as an adult instantly brought back childhood memories of watching his aunt dip her madeleine cake in her tea. Now, any involuntary memory from your past is known as a “Proustian moment”.
Food memories feel so nostalgic because they’re often shaped by the surrounding environment, including the emotions and the people involved. When you eat a slice of apple pie that evokes powerful memories, it’s not just because of the taste of the food, but because of the nostalgia connected with that food. Perhaps you used to make apple pies with your grandma and now you associate it with the experience of being in a loving family environment.
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The same concept applies to your travel memories. Our guests often tell us that their favourite memories from their Trafalgar tour were our Be My Guest experiences. This is where our guests meet locals in their homes to share a meal. The whole experience of connecting with locals, learning about their culture, and enjoying the food in such a meaningful way, creates an emotion that will forever be linked to those tastes and smells. It just goes to show, food memories aren’t just about survival – they’re also driven by our emotions and experiences.
Do you love foodie travel and trying local delicacies? What are your favourite food travel memories? Let us know in the comments below!