Kenji Lopez-Alt’s chili has great depth, unity and intensity. Instead of distinct flavor notes, the long, slow, simmering melds flavors into a unity in which all contrasting flavors are submerged in an impression of intense meatiness. None of the strongly-flavored ingredients maintain their identity. Yet that unity is not achieved through simplification. The broth is dark and rich and seems complex even though you cannot distinctly identify the elements that make it complex. The melding of many ingredients gives the impression of unfathomable depth.  But in this dish, depth is not based on having many layers. Distinct layers are not discernible unless you add condiments. So what do we mean by depth here?

Depth is an important concept in painting. But in that context we are really talking about an illusion of depth. The painted surface is two-dimensional. Through the use of perspective and the juxtaposition of shapes, painters create an illusion that we are looking at a three dimensional object. In cooking, however, depth is not an illusion but a mysterious window into how our brains work.

It is useful to compare cooking with music on this concept of depth. Often in music, instruments and sound effects are added in the background; you cannot hear them distinctly but it would make a discernible difference if they were left out. They add shades of color and richness to the more prominent dimensions of the music without asserting their own identity in the overall sound.

This is an enormously important concept in cooking as well. Many ingredients in recipes contribute to the overall flavor but they don’t show themselves as distinct flavors, and if the dish lacked them it would make a clear difference. How these ingredients are perceived depends on how they are used. Allums such as garlic and onions are a good example. When they are not featured in a dish you often cannot pick out their distinctive flavor despite the influence they have on its overall impression. Without them, dishes often taste flat and uninspiring.We might speculate that they stimulate a variety of taste and olfactory receptors but at a level just below the detection threshold. But that stimulation has causal influence operating on the brain subliminally to provide sensations we have no names for and cannot easily abstract from the background.

In this chili recipe by Lopez-Alt, the many strong flavored ingredients have been absorbed into the unity of the dish. Because they are not apparent they do not detract from its unity but neither do they contribute to simple complexity. Instead they create depth which in this case refers to density. The main ingredients are beef, dried chile peppers and tomatoes. Because of the long cooking time, the distinct flavors of these ingredients take on aspects of each other creating density. The sharp contrasts between the fruity, earthy,  notes of the chiles and the floral, vegetal notes of the tomatoes are muted by the meat that functions as a bridge bringing these flavors closer together so they seem to merge.

In science, “density” refers to the mass of a substance divided by its volume—a concept defined by quantities. However, by “density” in this aesthetic context I mean  something more qualitative—the number of flavors that can be packed into the “meaty” flavor space. In this dish, all flavors evolve toward meatiness. Thus there is a kind of complexity here. Not the complexity of many diverse qualities but the complexity of many qualities, which only very fine-grained discrimination can detect, evolving toward an attractor–meatiness.

This kind of density and complexity is vaguely sensed. It becomes clearly discernible only through pairwise comparison where fine-grained differences can be noted. When I made a version of this recipe without the additional umami-supplying ingredients, I compared the two side by side and there was a clear difference with the tomato in the non-umami version maintaining some of its green, vegetal flavors.

These qualities that constitute density and complexity as I have defined them are called Raffmanian qualia in the philosophical literature after Diana Raffman who first pointed to their existence. Laboratory work on human pitch and color discrimination suggest that our capacity to discriminate pitch and color are greater than our ability to identify pitch and color.  A normal listener can notice around 1400 pitch differences but we possess only about 80 discrete pitch categories. Similar results have been shown for color perception. The upshot of this research is that we can tell pitches and colors apart but we can’t remember or recognize how they appear across experiences. The problem is probably even more acute for taste and flavor. We don’t recognize the contribution of many ingredients unless we do a side-by-side comparison.

Thus, understanding the aesthetics of flavor requires systematic pairwise discrimination. (Comparing side by side, several versions of the same dish to note their differences.) Furthermore, our reasons for liking or not liking a dish may often be difficult to articulate since we lack the categories, let alone the vocabulary, to express what we’re tasting.

The phenomenology of flavor is a dark phenomenology.