Food, Love, and Molecules
This post is late because I came unstuck on a piece about food shortages and revolution and must entirely rethink my argument. So instead I present you with a soufflé of a post: a reflection on this year’s list of Top 50 restaurants which was announced on Monday.
For a long time I’ve wanted to discuss the kind of cooking labelled ‘molecular gastronomy’, practised most famously by Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck and, originally, at El Bulli in Spain by Ferran Adrià. I suppose that given last week’s rant about the adoration of the pavlova on MasterChef Australia it would be reasonable to assume that I am deeply critical of the food served at these restaurants. On the contrary, I’m fascinated by it and am a fan of both Blumenthal and Adrià.
This may seem like I’m trying to square the circle, but let me explain. It’s worth defining precisely what I mean by molecular gastronomy because, depending on context, it can refer to two separate, yet related, activities. Firstly, it describes what has also been dubbed ‘modernist cuisine’: a type of cooking which uses a range of unorthodox methods and equipment radically to alter familiar foodstuffs and dishes. For example, in a recent television series, In Search of Perfection, Blumenthal entirely reinvented, among other things, that classic of 1970s dining, black forest gateau. Adrià dislikes the term molecular gastronomy, preferring describe his cooking as ‘deconstructionist’, and I think that this is a useful way of understanding his and Blumenthal’s technique.
Blumenthal reduced the gateau to its most basic components – chocolate, cream, maraschino cherries, and kirsch – and then reassembled it using aerated chocolate and cream jelly to emphasise the intensity of the dark chocolate, the richness of the cream, and the sweet-sourness of the cherries. Drawing attention to its origins during the 70s, the cake was spray-painted with a mock wood veneer in chocolate. Finally, Blumenthal poured the kirsch into a spray bottle and spritzed it in to the air as the cake was being eaten: we use our sense of smell to taste (which is why everything tastes of boiled knitting when your nose is blocked), and the scent of the kirsch combined with the taste of chocolate, cream, and cherries blends together as the cake is eaten.
In its second, more exact, meaning, molecular gastronomy describes a branch of food science which pays particular attention to the process of cooking. It was invented in 1988 by Nicholas Kurti and Hervé This, who explains:
Despite having a huge impact on other aspects of our lives, scientific advances have done little to change our cooking habits. When it comes to preparing food – the most important aspect of our life from a physiological point of view – citizens in developed countries still cook almost the same way as their ancestors did centuries ago. … Kitchens are equipped with basically the same pans, whisks and sieves that cooks used in the seventeenth century.
Indeed, cooking was the last of the ‘chemical arts’ to become the object of scientific scrutiny and it still relies on telltale and anecdotal knowledge rather than solid science. As recently as 2001, an inspector from the French Department of Public Education said, during a public lecture, that her mayonnaise failed when she was menstruating. Such old wives’ tales were partly the reason behind the creation of molecular gastronomy: I first started experimental studies of cooking after encountering a recipe for cheese soufflé that advised adding egg yolks ‘two by two, never by fractions’. Another reason was that the late Nicholas Kurti, professor of physics at Oxford University, UK, was upset by the poor and unscientific way that people cook. …in 1988, Kurti and I decided that we should create a new scientific discipline to investigate culinary transformations.
Originally, molecular gastronomy had five aims: ‘to collect and investigate old wives’ tales about cooking; to model and scrutinize existing recipes; to introduce new tools, products and methods to cooking; to invent new dishes using knowledge from the previous three aims; and to use the appeal of food to promote science.’ This has since been reduced to two: to look at how food is described or defined (a mayonnaise is a thick, jelly-like emulsion of egg yolk and oil, for example), and the range of hints, tips, and advice that accompany instructions for making food (when making mayonnaise, heat the bowl and add the oil in a thin trickle).
However, we rapidly found this new programme insufficient as well, because the main aim in cooking is to produce good food, which is art and not technique. Furthermore, a dish can be cooked perfectly, but if it is not presented in an appealing way, all the art and science will mean little to the customer or guest; we therefore decided that we must include the ‘love’ component of culinary practice. Of course, science will probably never be able to fully explain art or love, but it can help; for example, evolutionary biology can contribute to the exploration of human behaviours, and, accordingly, culinary practice. Consequently, molecular gastronomy not only uses science to explore the technical aspect of cooking but also the ‘art’ and ‘love’ components, both of which are important for the main aim of cooking: to delight guests.
I think that this sums up why I am fascinated, rather than repelled, by molecular gastronomy: it melds scientific enquiry (why do we cook in the way we do?) with a recognition that much of our response to food and eating is emotional, aesthetic, and irrational. This argues convincingly that the usefulness of molecular gastronomy lies in its ability to tell us more about how food is cooked: ‘If we are able to use the knowledge gained on food preparation, we might find new ways to make healthy food more attractive, we might persuade more people to cook better food and, last but not least, we might convince society to regard eating as a pleasure rather than a necessity.’
It’s for this reason that I am interested in what top-end restaurants do: the two uses of molecular gastronomy overlap in that both require us to think more closely about how we prepare food, and then to use this knowledge to look again at how we eat. I agree that it would be impossible to accuse Pierre Gagnaire and René Redzepi of producing affordable, interesting, and healthy food for the masses – and the same is true of the three South African restaurants (Le Quartier Francais (36), Rust en Vrede (61), and La Colombe (82)) listed in the Top 100. But then none of them pretend to do so: these restaurants are spaces in which food is the subject of experimentation and where, paradoxically, chefs are at liberty not to take it too seriously (as on MasterChef). They are free to play with food, and to rethink the ways in which we eat and respond to food.
There is a connection between restaurant and home cooking. When the much derided nouvelle cuisine of the 1980s swopped heavy, flour-laden sauces for lighter reductions, home cooking gradually followed suit (although this change took place within a broader context of heightened concern about healthy eating in the West). When Blumenthal unveiled his snail porridge at the Fat Duck, the dish was greeted with derision and disgust. But now – around a decade later – deeply savoury snails on a risotto-like porridge of oats is no longer thought to be repellent. In fact, Blumenthal simply combined a collection of ingredients usually loved by diners in a slightly different format.
In this way, these restaurants can be seen as laboratories in which the food of the future – the jellies, foams, sous vide cooking, and new flavour combinations – is developed. It’s worth noting that Adrià has recently announced the closure of El Bulli, and the opening of a research foundation dedicated to spreading the lessons learned from the technology developed at the restaurant. In particular, he aims to show how cooking and eating can – and should – be both healthy and delicious. That love, in other words, is as important as technique in cooking.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Notes from Madras
Penguin has published a new series focussing on the best food writing of the past four hundred years. Titled Great Food, this collection of twenty slim volumes fillets and reduces the work of well-known writers – MFK Fisher, Eliza Acton, and Claudia Roden – as well as of (now) more obscure authors – William Verrall, Agnes Jekyll, and Gervase Markham –into a hundred pages each.
Last Saturday I bought Notes from Madras, a digest of Colonel Wyvern’s classic Culinary Jottings from Madras (first published 1878 and substantially revised in 1885). I confess that I’d heard neither of the Colonel nor of Jottings before reading a review of the series, and I am so pleased that I’ve discovered him. Elizabeth David wrote: ‘I should recommend anyone with a taste for Victorian gastronomic literature to snap up [Wyvern’s recipes]. His recipes are so meticulous and clear that the absolute beginner could follow them, yet at the same time he has much to teach the experienced cook.’
Coralie Bickford-Smith's beautiful cover design for Notes from Madras
Colonel Arthur Robert Kenney-Herbert (1840-1916) was an officer in the British Indian Army who began to write about Indian cooking while stationed in the subcontinent during the second half of the nineteenth century. First published in newspaper articles, he went on to author a series of recipe books and found a cookery school in London. The purpose of his writing was to demystify cooking in India for the white, middle-class memsahibs who travelled to India with their husbands. Not only does Jottings provide recipes and menus, but detailed, practical advice about setting up and stocking a kitchen and training a servant.
David is entirely correct when she suggests that Wyvern be used by inexperienced or unconfident cooks. His recipes describe simply and precisely the ingredients and methods that go into preparing a range of dishes: from macaroni cheese to curries. He makes sure to explain the principles behind cooking: his instructions for boiling and preparing potatoes run to six pages; there are twelve steps for making the perfect fritter. Long-winded, perhaps. But fool-proof? Definitely.
Jottings from Madras has a number of surprising features. For the contemporary reader, the most striking is Wyvern’s enthusiasm for parmesan cheese, basil, and minimally-cooked vegetables. His writing runs counter to all the things we believe about heavy, bland, and overcooked Victorian meals. Partly as a result of this, Wyvern’s views on Indian servants and cooks seem of place. Although Jottings advises colonial wives to treat their cooks with patience and respect, and to address them directly – not via a butler – in whichever pidgin English was spoken in their region, he believes that the country’s indigenous people are fundamentally inferior to himself and other Europeans:
This paternalistic – racist, certainly – attitude towards ‘Ramasámy’, his typical Indian cook, helps, I think, to account for Wyvern’s views on Indian cuisine. In terms of recipes, the primary aim of Jottings from Madras is to teach and assist readers to cook the standard, heavily Francophile food popular in Europe during the period. The genius of the book is Wyvern’s practical approach to cooking northern European cuisine in hot, humid south Asian conditions where many ingredients on which French cooking relies were not freely available.
Wyvern was not unusual in his assertion that most Europeans in India would want to eat primarily European dishes. One of my favourite sections of EM Forster’s A Passage to India (1924) describes an attempt to replicate the cooking of ‘home’ in a household in India with an Indian cook wholly unfamiliar with British and French cuisines:
In the future I’ll discuss the ways in which this insistence upon serving and eating a British menu in India – and, indeed, elsewhere in the Empire – were connected to the construction and maintenance of ‘civilised’ European identities, but, for the moment, I’d like to focus on Wyvern’s attempts to find a happy medium between Indian and English cooking.
In Jottings he expressly advises against stocking up with too many bottled and tinned fruit, vegetables, and meat, arguing that wives should acquaint themselves with the fresh produce on offer at local markets. Wyvern makes the reasonable point that there is little point in trying to cook simple, yet delicious, French-style meals with inferior ingredients.
Wyvern also suggests that curries and aspects of Indian cuisine be incorporated into everyday menus. In fact, he writes that curries should feature as the centrepiece of formal dinners, lamenting that this practice had fallen out of fashion since the formalising of British rule in the middle of the century. (Before then, the British East India Company had constituted Britain’s presence in India. British wives, families, and domesticity arrived with the Raj.) Like other British authors, Wyvern refers to a range of Indian dishes as ‘curry’, but he does recognise that Indian cooking is heavily regionalised – and not all of it is ‘curry’. He provides a collection of recipes for Madras and Sri Lankan curries, using ingredients and flavours specific to these areas.
However, as in the case with Ramasámy, while he acknowledges that the curries are good to eat using traditional methods, they can, nevertheless, be improved upon using European methods and ingredients:
So in go red currant jelly and stock – two ingredients which could not be more remote from the cooking of south India. Wyvern also devotes some space to mulligatawny, a soup which seems to have originated in Victorian Madras when Indian cooks were asked to invent a soup for their British employers. They based it on the Tamil molo tunny, or pepper water, a medicinal preparation for curing stomach ailments. To the original recipe of water, black pepper, chillies, and tamarind were added the inevitable chicken stock, fried onions, chicken, and, depending on taste, rice. This mulligatawny was, as Lizzie Collingham notes in Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (2005), one of the first examples of a hybrid Anglo-Indian cuisine which developed in British settlements in the subcontinent. Others include kedgeree and new versions of curry – which were not only exported to Britain, but spread around India.
One of the most important products to emerge from this new Anglo-Indian cooking was ‘curry powder’. As I noted a fortnight ago, the idea of ‘curry powder’ is a British one. In south Asia, garam masala is a mix of spices which differs across regions, shops, and households. There is no single, correct recipe for it. Curry powder is a product blended by businesses for mass consumption. Wyvern believed strongly that the basis for any good curry was a good curry powder, but acknowledged that not every housewife had the skill, confidence, or time to produce her own:
However much I do believe that Colonel Wyvern held the success of his readers’ curries ‘very closely at heart’, I wonder how much he did Barrie’s profit margins as well: Barrie’s appears frequently in Jottings. But Barrie’s was only one product in a very crowded market. The first British-produced curry powder was marketed at the end of the eighteenth century, and local as well as imported brands jostled for attention on the shelves of grocers around Britain by the late 1800s. These were blander and less fiery than Indian garam masala, but found an enthusiastic audience in Britain.
Collingham laments the Anglicisation of Indian cooking in British kitchens in both India and Britain, seeing it as a distinctly poor cousin to the original (or originals). I’m sure that many of the curries prepared in officers’ bungalows in Hyderabad and in suburban London weren’t terribly good, but I think it’s more useful to think of them as a kind of nineteenth-century imperial cuisine: the curries eaten by the British in India and in Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were, really, British. Collingham demonstrates:
In recent – and entirely laudable – efforts to replicate the more nuanced nature of regional Indian cooking, these curries – the Madras curries of British invention – have been sidelined and even ridiculed. They are held up to illustrate the unsophisticated nature of the British palate. I think it’s a pity because these are truly delicious dishes.
But it would seem that they might be heading for a revival. Marcus Wareing has recently opened The Gilbert Scott, the new restaurant at the magnificently renovated and refurbished St Pancras Hotel in London. Like Heston Blumenthal at Dinner, Wareing has drawn inspiration from old, British recipe books, and particularly those from the period in which the St Pancras Hotel was built. He includes, of course, a mulligatawny soup. In this BASTARD video WHICH REFUSES TO EMBED (sorry, long day), the Guardian’s Tim Hayward waxes lyrical on the St Pancras Hotel, the Gilbert Scott, and Wareing’s menu. He samples the mullgatawny, and approves of it mightily on the grounds that it tastes ‘authentically’ of…curry powder. This, he suggests, is an example of proper, British cooking. Curry powder, a strange hybrid of British and Indian cuisines, has now become a ‘classic’ and, ironically, ‘authentic’.
Texts quoted here:
Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and sConquerors (London: Vintage,  2006).
EM Forster, A Passage to India (London: Penguin,  1989).
Colonel Wyvern, Culinary Jottings: A Treatise in Thirty Chapters on Reformed Cookery, 5th ed. (Madras: Higginbotham and Co., 1885).
—-, Notes from Madras (London: Penguin, 2011).
K.T. Achaya, The Food Industries of British India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994).
David Burton, French Colonial Cookery (London: Faber and Faber, 2000).
Lizzie Collingham, Imperial Bodies: The Physical Experience of the Raj, c.1800-1947 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001).
James E. McWilliams, A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).
Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985).
—-, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), pp. 67-83.
Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants, trans. David Jacobson (New York: Random House, 1992).
James Walvin, Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Taste, 1660-1800 (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1997).
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.