10 December 2007

A Molecular Gastronomy Hoax

"During a recent raid
on a wholesale centre in Guangzhou City, the capital of China's Guangdong province, a large quantity of fake eggs was seized. Their wholesale price is 0.15 yuan (S$0.03) each - half the price of a real egg.

Consumers have a hard time telling a genuine egg from a fake one. This is good news for unscrupulous entrepreneurs, who are even conducting three-day courses in the production of artificial eggs for less than S$150.

A reporter with Hong Kong-based Chinese magazine EastWeek enrolled in one such course. To create egg white, the instructor - a woman in her 20s - used assorted ingredients such as gelatin, an unknown powder, benzoic acid, coagulating material and even alum, which is normally used for industrial processes.

For egg yolk, some lemon-yellow colouring powder is mixed to a liquid and the concoction stirred. The liquid is then poured into a round-shaped plastic mould and mixed with so-called 'magic water', which contains calcium chloride. This gives the 'yolk' a thin outer membrane, firming it up.

The egg is then shaped with a mould. The shell is not forgotten. Paraffin wax and an unidentified white liquid are poured onto the fake egg, which is then left to dry.

The artificial egg can be fried sunny-side up or steamed. Although bubbles appear on the white of the egg, those who have tasted it say the fake stuff tastes very much like the real thing. But experts warn of the danger of eating fake eggs. Not only do they not contain any nutrients, a Hong Kong Chinese University professor warned that long-term consumption of alum could cause dementia or mental disease."

Last week the above information arrived twice in my inbox and had been circulating by email amongst Asian friends. As soon as I read it, I smelt a rat. There are many stories emanating from China about falsified foods and consequently some of the people I know in Hong Kong have become quite cautious shoppers. But it was definitely on the nose for me.

I had a look at Hoax Slayer and there it was. In fact a Blogger was believed to have 'cracked' the myth and the scam. But it spoke reams to me about what is happening in the food scene.

I'm talking about the increasing popularity of Molecular Gastronomy. It involves
the study of physical and chemical processes that occur in cooking. The term was coined in 1988 by Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti and French chemist Hervé This and has finally become fashionable. However this is not a fad that will appear on menus alongside local interpretations of Nacho's, Risotto and Laksa.

For two years the Molecular Gastronomy juggernaut that is El Bulli of Spain, has topped the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list. Chef Ferran Adrià Acosta and his huge kitchen brigade conjure astounding dishes like wizards. The result is conceptual and a play of chemistry, where traditional food textures and flavours are swapped, interplayed with scents not usual to culinaria and reconfigured to bewilder and hopefully fascinate the palate. If he wanted to I'm sure Mr Adri
à could easily reassemble an egg, but it wouldn't be cheap.

For some cooks, having mastered the rudimentary and the traditional dishes of the culinary repertoire, there is comfort and mastery in the familiar. There is some interplay and twists on the familiar. For others there is boredom which I suppose is what inspires them to move on to more daring gastronomic feats, and hence we have the new fangled Molecular Gastronomy, a dining experience that globally has a small market.

As a conceptually driven experience of dining that requires large kitchen brigades and expensive machinery it has been available in Melbourne for the diner with deep pockets for a number of years. Most however have not been receptive of it, as often diners in Australia lean to the rustic over the conceptual and quality seems to be determined by traditional Haute Cuisine, while value is prized over innovation.

At Zuccini in 2001 the team found that there were not enough early adopters in Melbourne to sustain this stream of ambitious endeavours. When Ferran Adria came out to do our Food Fest circuits, people walked out of his sessions. At Reserve, George Calombaris tried to surf the wave but failed to find a market, and has since, successfully toned it down somewhat to infuse his ideas into the Greek cooking of his childhood cuisine at The Press Club. More recently Ray Capaldi and Robin Wickens are finding their way as the affluent diner is finally swayed by the fashion in international dining guides for venues such as El Bulli, Thomas Keller's French Laundry and Pierre Gagnaire's venues in Paris and Hong Kong.

But what about the home cook? For me, I no longer use recipes. I know from sight, smell and instinct how much of an ingredient to use without weights and measures, to get what I want and have accumulated 30 years of recipe reading and master classes in order to assimilate enough techniques to invent dishes. I know how to fuse the techniques of various cuisines with the ingredients of others and am proud of the results. I imagine that for the pros this must often be the case too.

But amongst all this I now have the desire to know just why certain things work and that all comes down to Chemistry. Although unlike Heston Blumenthal of Fat Duck, I have no desire to deconstruct a traditional dish and reconstruct it with a synthesis of other ingredients, like spheres of egg or pea, or even his famous egg and bacon ice cream, I do however want to know the reason how day to day culinary chemistry works.

Some of the questions that percolate in my mind are why is it if you add salad dressing ingredients in the wrong order it will separate and not emulsify? Why does it actually take a ton of sea salt to properly boil certain foods? What is the natural sugar content of certain produce and how much will they caramalise? Why is it that the humid evening air savaged my chocolate chilli souffle batter in a matter of minutes, but I was still able to rescue it - and how did I instinctively know what to do about it?

Sometimes with a little rumination I can figure it out for myself in terms of chemical reactions, but I'm also interested in micro-biology and the effects of bacteria and enzymes - to name but two items - on flavour and texture. The answers to those things I crave to learn. Ok, if you haven't figured it out by now, I'm a great big nerd.

On my wishlist is Harold McGee's incredible On Food & Cooking: The Science & Lore of the Kitchen, but I'm hoping to get that down the track. I content myself in the meantime by reading his New York Times Column, The Curious Cook instead. Perhaps one day I will Graduate to Herve This. But to begin with I am reading professor emeritus Robert L. Wolke's What Einstein Told His Cook 1 - Kitchen Science Explained and 2 - Further Adventures in Kitchen Science.

To use an Aussie analogy, Robert L. Wolke is the Dr Karl Kruszelniki of cooking. So far most of it confirms my own deductions with scientific evidence, such as that marinading will only affect the surface area of a piece of meat and not penetrate it - even if punctured. But there are other things such as why fish decompose faster than meat and even the molecular explanation behind producing emulsions.

I don't think that it will lead me to buying the cute molecular products now available for producing your own spheres and foams, but I hope that it will take me that step further in my culinary pursuits...

... Besides, the foam that topped Mr Stickyfingers' scallop raviolo last week at Toofeys reminded him of the cat sputum that typically accompanies a furball. I wonder what he'll make of dinner at Fenix next week?

What do you think of Molecular Gastronomy?


Anonymous said...

Great post!
Could this Hoax be part of a new conspiricy of the Western powers to keep us all wary of the 'Yellow peril' to our East? Yes there have been some terrible & even criminal blunders from some Chinese food manufactures eager to make a fast buck but this sounds like its come straight from the reds under the bed handbook of the fifties.
Perhaps the seeds of discontent are being feverishly sown by those who are nervous about China's growing economic stature?

I will say though that I once had some 'Not-Duck'at Soulmama that was a soy protein/seitan combination from China that tasted spookily of Roast Duckling-I was seriously flummoxed for a time. However when I found out how highly refined & added to it was, I didn't want to go near it with a barge pole!

To start, I am not a fan of this style of cooking, so I'll get that outta the way early.
However I do marvel at the ingenuity & creativity that these fellows employ. Curious isnt it that these exponents of Molecular Chicanery are all blokes?
Perhaps it is not drawing too long a bow to suggest that it is a male pre-occupation that is all about creating something unique that tries to emulate that most creative of endeavors, childbirth?
before you all poo poo the idea, I'm sure many of us can discern a female touch in the food we are presented with & consume. Then we can also observe that most obvoius trait of male chefs, the tower?!
I am convinced this fad & I'll bravely call it a fad will not last.
Yes it will have a profound influence on food in our future but the pendulum will inevitably swing back the other way.
Why de-construct anything? To understand it, to break it up. perhaps to control it?
Can a de-constructed pie nurture you like one straight from the oven on a cold winters day? Will it sustain you, nurture you & fill you with well being? I dont think so.
A deconstructed pie will compete with your discretionry dollar for a night at the theatre, musical experience or a virtuoso perforance. To me that is what this food is about, it has its place as a high wire act, a challenging display of high craft & skill but it will never keep me warm on a cold night.
Sorry to highjack your blog sticky!

stickyfingers said...

Gobbler my friend, rather than hijacking my post this is exactly the encouragement and discussion I am happy to receive or even provoke.

Yes, I think the rumour mongering is sensationalism and carries a desire to discourage mainland China. But by the same token, many ingenious scams seem to come from people there wanting to make a fast buck.

I have some Asian Vegetarian duck in the cupboard - mine is essentially just gluten flavoured with the same marinade used on Cantonese roast duck.

Your take on Molecular Gastronomy is fascinating. To me MG evokes Damien Hirst's art. It has that "surely not?" or "WTF!" quality that leaves you incredulously gob-smacked that someone had the audacity to undertake it and yet at the same time it can be very appealing.

As someone who has worked in the Arts one learns to deconstruct in order to craft and then build or design something better than the original. As they say, 'you must learn the rules in order to learn to break them and it is from breaking from tradition that we move forward'.

Unfortunately in the the culinary arts, although the outcome is original, I don't think the result is always better. This is ultimately the challenge and not all proponents are successful. I think like any outstanding chef, no matter what the genre, the intuition must be strong, so that the equation is not just adhoc and a crazy recipe for disaster.

It will be interesting to see how long this school of dining continues. Will it go the way of Cordon Bleu and Cuisine Minceur, to leave a few elements behind as standard in the wake of a new way of eating?

purple goddess said...

Not a fan.

Have posted about this frequently.

My whole beef with the movement can be summed up in two word "pretentious. wankers"

MG is often described as "applying science to cooking".. and that in itself shows the sheer pretentious wanker-osity of it all...

Ummm.. Neanderthals searing a bit of Yak's spleen over a fire is apply science to food, you idiots!!!

Another two words:



stickyfingers said...

I loved the discussion on Cooking for Engineers on "The Maillard Reaction when searing a piece of meat". My kind of geeks, I suppose. And like Mr Stickyfingers, pedantic about using the correct terminology. So when on TV they say to caramelise meat, they're wrong. They are browning the meat which is a amino acid reaction - OMG!

I also enjoyed reading Harold McGee's position on Molecular gastronomy on eGullet:

"I would say that a growing number of chefs and cooks today are less interested in replicating traditional and classic preparations by mastering traditional and classic techniques, and more interested in creating specific effects that they as individuals envision and desire by using whatever preparations and ingredients and techniques can produce them—or they’re interested in exploring what nontraditional methods and materials can offer to the cook and eater. Sous vide, combi ovens, pacojets, liquid nitrogen, alginates, pop rocks, essential oils . . . Some of these seem to involve more technology than craft or skill. On the other hand, fine chocolate as we now know it is the creation of machinery (fine grinders and conches that can knead the cacao mass continuously for days); as is espresso—and there’s good stuff and bad stuff. I don’t think there’s any danger of “cooking by hand” disappearing. We cook and eat in various ways for various reasons; right now the spectrum of possibilities is expanding."

Ran said...

As an organic chemist i must admit that i think about the chemcial reactions behind food too. last week as i was making aoli I couldnt help but be amazed at the humble egg and its amazing properties. I cannot imagine that a fake egg could ever have all the emulsifying properties that a real egg has, no matter how cleverly it was made.

Some molecular gastronomy interests me from a purely intellectual viewpoint but I must admitt to leaning towards PG's comments above!

Sometimes after a long day in the lab, i find myself in the kitchen doing very similar processes as I had at work that day. i also find I can tell if chemcial reactions are going to work by the way they smell or feel. I have been tempted to taste chemical mixtures before in a moment of distraction! I guess my point is that chemistry is cooking no matter what you are cooking and how creative.

Anonymous said...

I've probably said the same elsewhere, but I think the cooking-as-conceptual-exercise needs to be separated from the application of scientific understanding in creating better/different/worse eating experiences, and in turn separated from the simple scientific understanding of cooking and eating (the latter, of course, being what molecular gastronomy is really all about).

grocer said...

duncan, i think you might be a genius. how did you sum it all up so simply?

Duncan | Syrup&Tang said...

@grocer: lol thanks. Here was I thinking I was writing too compactly!

George Biron said...

What’s the matter with the food I’m fixing?
“Can’t you tell that it’s out of style?”
Should I be molecular minded?
“If you don’t then you’re in denial.
Don’t you know about the new fashion money
Don’t need bees to make a new-age of honey”
Fat duck, mind fuck, cook muck, big suck
Still sausage rolls for me.

stickyfingers said...

Köszönöm szépen Biron úr.


(Not sure how Billy Joel would react to the new lyrics, but I love 'em)

Pat Churchill said...

I'm a bit of a frustrated chemistry student, so Harold McGee's books On Food and Cooking (1984) and The Curious Cook (1992) are a couple of my treasures - the latter bought as a discard at the public library in Wellington NZ for $2! I recently squandered some housekeeping money on McGee's big On Food and Cooking update last year. Great investment. My other new best friend is Shirley Corriher, (CookWise) who comes into food from a chemistry perspective and analyses what makes things tick in the cooking world. I bought her book at a good price on Amazon.

There's foam and then there's something that looks suspiciously like the dishwash staff have emptied a soupcon of sink suds over the food.

Anyone do foam at home?