Food + Science = Fun
For example, a lot of us actually like the fishy taste that the average civilian can’t handle. Chef Nils Noren from The French Culinary Institute understands that. So to get more clam blast, he had clams eating clam chowder. No actual clam meat: he just had the clams absorbing clam juice. It’s what’s called “energizing” the clammy flavor.
It worked so well that Noren tackled oysters next. Like a mad but brilliant scientist, he altered the oysters’ taste: he fed them minuscule particles of mashed-up carrots and cardamom. Sure enough, the oysters took on the flavor of both the herb and the veggie.
Yum. That’s the point—and the fun—of getting stem cell biologists, chefs, food scientists, anthropologists, and other professionals together at last week’s second annual symposium of the Experimental Cuisine Collective at New York University.
Food science can make dining a nutritious game. Noren might serve chorizo, tomato, and cheese on bread, but it won’t be a sandwich, it will be a soup. And if he serves French onion soup, it won’t be a soup, but a dessert of onion ice cream and cheese atop a puff pastry. (Blending the creamed onion in a pressure cooker banishes the onion flavor, leaving a lovely and very edible sweetness.)
And even if you love beer, coffee, arugula, and other bitter foods, the idea of “bitter” has been universally accepted as bad. Dr. Leslie Vosshall from Rockefeller University explains that bitterness can represent toxins. It’s why mice won’t touch your gin and tonic: they avoid even tiny amounts of quinine. Some animals even taste with their genitals!
Vosshall has also researched the sense of smell. She’s had no trouble getting subjects for her sniffing studies, even when they had to give blood and sniff vials for three hours. Vosshall says no two people smell things the same way. Some people think cilantro is a horrid scent, or that vanilla has no scent at all. She also learned that some subjects think the scent of men’s underarms is sweet.
Vosshall’s conclusion: that some day restaurants will serve cuisine that’s personalized to a customer’s genetic profile. Until then, she wishes restaurants could do without menus, so diners would be able to leave their biases at the door.
Jeanine Barone is a food and travel journalist who is trained as a scientist: she’s a nutritionist/exercise physiologist/microbiologist. Follow her on Twitter @jcreaturetravel.