21 November 2007

Molecular Cuisine - Alchemy of the Senses

When Oliver Hess of Silverlake's Materials & Applications described bacon lard ice cream as incredible, I was dubious. Of course, like so many things in life, it's about the context.

Molecular cuisine is the end product of molecular gastronomy. Since the 80s, chefs & scientists have been collaborating to experiment with breaking foods down into their most basic components – molecules – seeking scientific explanations to age-old culinary mysteries -- how do our brains interpret signals from the five senses to tell us the “flavor” of food; why is that some foods combine well, while others don’t -- and applying that knowledge to creating new tastes and textures.

Molecular gastronomy is intricately tied to how the human body interprets sensory input. Try chef and researcher Paul Barham's ice cream experiment: Most of us find that a spoonful of ice cream tastes good. Now, close your eyes eating the same ice cream while stroking a piece of velvet, and you'll find that it tastes much creamier. Repeat the same experiment with sandpaper & the ice cream's texture will be grittier.

A watershed moment for molecular cuisine came in 1999, when Heston Blumenthal, chef at the Fat Duck restaurant at Bray-on-Thames in England, shocked the dining world with his fusion of white chocolate and caviar, a combination whose success was explained by the surprisingly similar chemical compositions of the two foods.

Restaurants in New York, Toronto and Tokyo are popularizing the cuisine. Most famous is Ferran AdriĆ 's El Bulli in Barcelona. In the unlikely event of getting a table, look forward to sampling cocoa butter with crispy ears of rabbit; Kellogg’s paella, which consists of Rice Krispies, shrimp heads and vanilla-flavored mashed potatoes; white garlic and almond sorbet; and tobacco-flavored blackberry crushed ice. And for that added dimension, don't forget your fabric swatches.

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