The one act we’ve been following ever since we established sense of civilisation is that of cooking. Food is not only essential for survival but goes much beyond it, a legal sin to indulge in. And how it has developed over decades and centuries can be passionately narrated by any chef with keen interest. But what has kept the diners and the chefs busy lately is a new era of culinary science: Molecular Gastronomy.
Born in as early as the 2nd century by an anonymous author in France, Molecular Gastronomy came into being as a part of experimentation. The author wished to understand the balance between weights and to answer the question: would fermented meat be lighter than fresh meat? However it never became as prominent and easily accessible until the late Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti, and physical chemist Hervé This (pronounced ‘Tees’), gave it a new dimension in 1988. They, in its simplest form, described it as science-meets-kitchen.
Food science is the study of the chemical, physical, and biological aspects of food. Scientists for long have been toying with the DNA of food, its chemical and physical aspects, and to find new ways of expression that challenges the traditionally existing forms of edible produce. And this further explains that molecular gastronomy is, thus, not only a form of cookery but also is an amalgamation of the science behind food and application of heat, temperature, air, and other elements to it. As serious as it may sound, the job is much tougher. It then comes down to the chef’s understanding of ratios, permutations, and combination, pressures, humidity, moisture, and other natural elements to develop an experience for its diners. To creating a scientifically-sound dish the chefs need accuracy to the last measure, detail, and microgram.
With all those thick books and chemicals around, the chef ends up becoming much of a scientist without a professional degree. Their weapons of a diner’s mental destruction includes foam guns, liquid nitrogen tanks, food dehydrators, centrifuge mixer, spherification kits, ultrasound machines , and chemicals like malto-dextrin, hydrocolloids, edible paper. And as a result of this a chef’s playground, his kitchen, appears to be no less than a fully loaded laboratory. With chemicals, chilled fumes, syringes, and tubes, instead of pans, spatulas, and tasting spoons, it is a shocker for any first encounter.
But with all this ‘wow’ knowledge and highly-tagged mini-portioned meals it comes as a surprise that this form of gastronomy is not based on solid science but culinary references from the past. Molecular gastronomy challenges the good old-fashioned tales and demystifies the reasons behind them. It doesn’t say that they are wrong but tries to understand the logic behind them. With that sorted they then aim at achieving similar results in some other way. And this is the very fibre of this science’s existence. It plays with the DNA of the food but never would disturb the harmony between what is operated on the ingredients and what reaches the dining tables. It is simple physics and none more. A classic example of this is to boil an egg by not cooking it in boiling water but by resting it in alcohol for days. The result is the same as the principle doesn’t get challenged but is technique changes.
However, it is often lamented that this science has made the chefs jacketed, technically sound, and the food misses the love behind it and is rather unromantic. And why wouldn’t it be believed that the complaints are actually genuine. One would hardly ever hear of a scientist being a true romantic. They can explain the logics of the world’s operations but human emotions are something they shy away from. And as a result these chefs decided to add an element of design into their creation. When they thought that these complaints are just about to become an integral part of the subject, English self-taught molecular gastronomy icon chef Heston Blumenthal came up with a response that will keep the critics shut for a long time. No chef has ever tried mixing technology and food the way he did. As a part of one of his surf-and-turf dish he serves no sauce or accompaniment but an iPod. It plays sounds from the beach with seagulls chirping, waves crashing, and sharp wind blowing. His idea is to completely submerge the diner into his dish and he very well executes it. And this till now is the epitome of the proof that food does indeed involve all your senses and dining is the ultimate human emotion.
Chef Blumenthal’s restaurant The Fat Duck in U.K. is not only one of the Meccas of molecular gastronomy but is also amongst the top five restaurants in the world. But what chef Ferran Adria creates (or created) at his Spain-based restaurant El Bulli keeps him a class apart from the rest. One of his signature creations being white garlic and almond sorbet wooed every food critic when it was unveiled. Chef Adria is today the leader in field and no one has come close to challenge his stance. Keeping the flags flying high in the US are culinary artists like chef Grant Achatz with his Chicago-based restaurant Alinea, chef Wylie Dufresne at WD-50 in New York, and Moto restaurant’s chef Homaro Cantu in Chicago. They all have their signature moves too with fried mayonnaise, crispy melon soup, black truffle explosion, and what not. But what takes everyone by surprise is chef Cantu’s edible paper. Now that’s innovative!
Will India ever be a part of this league? Can we experiment with something beyond our understanding and acceptability? The answers have already been given. Bengaluru-based restaurant Caperberry came out of chef Abhijit Saha’s enthusiasm and vision. His dishes are a great play of science and elements of surprise. It is an experience that is duplicated nowhere in India, at least. Many restaurants are including elements of molecular gastronomy to some of their dishes like Olive Kitchen and Bar, Smoke House Grill, Mobius, and other rated hotels in Delhi. But chef Saha’s six-course degustation menu is no less than the first school trip to a science museum. Fun, surprising, and well worth the money. And the diners agree with his dishes, concept, and the science that he has mastered.
Yet a constant question haunts the subject; is this the future of our dining scene? And if so how long would is exist for? The answer is simple. Molecular gastronomy will never be the main stream of our daily meals. Much like failure of the French chemist Marcellin Berthelot’s predictions of organic chemistry taking over the world by the year 2000, considering molecular gastronomy to be the fore-front runner someday will be a misconception to live with.
This science is here to stay for is what must be accepted. The scientists have been long involved with food preparation techniques and technology and have already established new boundaries with research and experimentations. A new discovery is made each day that opens another window for the chefs to think about. The advancements will not halt and the chefs will never stop taking advantage of this fact. And if not anything else by the end of all this we will at least have scientist with a better sense of taste!