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A taste revolution

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Chef Sharad Dewan whips up foamy salads like beetroot carpaccio topped off with mozzarella cheese, (left) and shot glasses of tomato mozzarella salad with pesto drizzle. Picture by Rashbehari Das

The world’s best gourmet chefs are cooking up a flurry of science in the kitchen. There’s Spain’s famous chef — or shall we say alchemist — Ferran Adria, whose revolutionary cooking has made the El Bulli restaurant, located on a winding road along the Catalan coast, the most sought-after dining spot in the world. One has to book a table two years in advance to savour Adria’s famed 30-course dinners.

Adria conjures up creations in his kitchen by challenging all the regular conventions of food. For instance, he will deconstruct a familiar dish by reworking its components or ingredients, and modifying their form or texture. So your everyday Spanish omelette, for instance, is transformed into layers of potato foam, puréed onions and egg-white, all cooked separately and set into a bite-sized concoction.

Adria’s creations are a result of experiments in his culinary lab, El Taller, where he injects food with chemicals like calcium chloride or plays with substances like liquid nitrogen.

Meanwhile, at the Fat Duck in Berkshire, England, Chef Heston Blumenthal is cooking up a storm as he dishes out fare like sardine on toast sorbet or bacon and egg ice cream.

(From top) The special offerings from Chef Bakshish Dean are Spiced Mango Ravioli and Masala Chai Pana Cotta with cardamom caviar and beaten rice candy

Now, you may not be able to travel all the way to the Catalan coast or Berkshire to savour this cutting-edge haute cuisine. But do not worry. You can eat ‘chemistry’ right here in India. The whacky science called ‘molecular gastronomy’ that lies behind such concoctions is just taking off in India. Chefs are working hand-in-hand with scientists and food technologists here to “deconstruct and re-construct” food and serve up some amazingly new combinations and unexpected flavours.

Take Chef Brainard Colaco, the executive chef of coffee shop chain Mocha, who is visibly excited about his lab-like kitchen. It’s equipped with liquid nitrogen tanks, syringes, measuring bowls, pipettes, dehydrators and foaming cylinders, no less. Colaco is using all this equipment to serve up an unusual repertoire that includes edible menus, fruit caviars and deconstructed cheese cakes.

Look at the meal he’s presenting now. There’s a tasting menu that teases the senses with dishes like Olive Oil Bon Bons, deep fried Mint Mayo Balls (in place of the ubiquitous mint dip) accompanying Tandoori Chicken Drumsticks and an open-faced Tiramisu burger.

As the courses arrive, you’re asked to break the menu and eat it — yes, that’s the “edible menu” for you. The pièce de résistance, though, is when you chomp on a dessert cigarillo and puff out little rings of smoke.

How indeed do you get smoke out of a pavlova-stuffed cigarillo? Well, here’s what Chef Colaco has done: He has flashed — or cold fried — the cigarillo in liquid nitrogen. So once you pop it in your mouth, the cold-fried nitrogen evaporates and blows out as smoke.

In case you’re wondering, liquid nitrogen is safe to consume — it’s only while handling it that chefs must be careful. The substance, after all, boils at 195.9°C. That is, it’s so cold that it can freeze your hands within a few seconds. Remember, liquid nitrogen is commonly used as a refrigerant.

Clearly, molecular gastronomy buffs love to play around with the chemical states of foods. Take the traditional Italian dish pana cotta. In its traditional form, this is a custard-like dessert. At Aurus, a restaurant-cum-lounge in Mumbai — where the Chef’s Table offers an exotic 10-course degustation meal — though, the pana cotta comes in the form of noodles.

Or Aurus’s Chef Gresham Fernandes may serve you a hearty French onion soup — but as a lollipop. And yes, you can enjoy this while relaxing on a bed by the sea here even as you gorge on mozzarella balloons stuffed with basil foam and teamed with tomato consommé. “The basic taste remains the same. Only the texture changes,” says Fernandes.

Chef Brainard Colaco serves up a
deconstructed lemon cheesecake (on his right), topped with charred lemon espuma and Graham Crackers and three different kinds of caviar (on his left) — cherry, blackcurrant, peach & apricot —
on white chocolate and jalapeno discs. Picture by Gajanan Dudhalkar

Colaco agrees. “What you see is not what you envisage. I call it the transmogrification of food,” he says. So Colaco dishes out an ostrich egg-shaped concoction, which is really a deconstructed blueberry cheesecake egg with mascarpone, yoghurt and cherry ice cream. His deconstructed cheesecakes are all set to feature on Mocha’s menu soon.

So how did molecular gastronomy come about? Well, this playing around with texture, temperature and taste was first done back in 1988 by French scientist Hervé This together with Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti.

“The idea is to encourage the senses to savour each aspect of a dish. That’s because the most notable characteristic of molecular gastronomy is to break down food into its individual elements,” explains Cordon Bleu chef Diya Sethi, who has reproduced some of Blumenthal and Adria’s signature creations.

Sharad Dewan, executive chef at The Park, Calcutta, believes that the study of the chemistry and physics underlying the preparation of food happens quite naturally in any kitchen. “What makes the mayonnaise firm, why does a soufflé swell when you bake it, is it possible to keep the yolk of a boiled egg in the centre every time? Molecular gastronomy basically questions all food processes, some of which have been used for centuries,” says Dewan, who is making instant ice creams using liquid nitrogen.

(From top) Aurus’s Chef Gresham Fernandes shows off his instruments from his ‘molecular pantry’. His creations: Lamb Ragu with Mushroom Jelly and lollipops of French onion soup

In India, the experimentation has just gotten underway at some of the country’s fine dining restaurants. For instance, Mumbai’s Salt Water Grill and its Delhi counterpart Smoke House Grill add surprise elements to their dishes such as fancy fruit caviars, food foams and gels. Executive chef Viraf Patel recommends the tomato soup with mascarpone foam, for instance. The pana cotta here too gets a twist as Patel coats it with basil gastrique (a thick sauce), or at times, with a pink peppercorn gastrique.

At The Park in Calcutta, such experimental dishes are only served on request. For instance, a simple salad of tomato mozzarella is garnished with pesto drizzle and served up as a froth in shot glasses. “The aftertaste is exactly the same. You just gulp it down instead of it chewing on it,” says Dewan.

Meanwhile at the Taj Bengal, Calcutta, senior sous chef Shahid Hossain is working with an enzyme called meat glue that does exactly what its name suggests — it helps to stick together two different kinds of meat. Chef Hossain is using the meat glue to fuse together scallops and bekti, which he then tops with carrot caviar. Alternatively, he whips up a mean coconut sauce foam to go with the dish.

“We’ve started serving such dishes only at our banquets,” he says. One of his latest creations is melon caviar served on buckwheat blinis (Russian-style pancakes), which he served at a Louis Vuitton event.

Even as molecular gastronomy promises to take food to a new level, it calls for extreme precision. So the chefs cook under controlled temperatures and use sensitive scales such as those used to measure gold.

“An extra gram can change everything,” warns Chef Bakshish Dean, executive chef at The Park in Delhi. On lazy Sundays, he rustles up a brunch of instant mousse, mushroom cappuccino and deconstructed iced teas served with mint caviar.

For instance, for the caviar, Dean injects a smooth blend of fruit pulp and sodium alginate (a common food additive that’s used to produce gel-like foods) into a syringe. He then injects this out into a bath of calcium chloride (a kind of salt often used in making cheese).

“Tiny spheres [of caviar] immediately come into life. And as the caviar breaks in your mouth, the burst of flavour is exquisite,” says Dean.

Now, Dean wants to push the boundaries of Indian cuisine by injecting some molecular gastronomy into it. He points to Adria’s experimentation with traditional Spanish cuisine. “Adria is using his native cuisine to make a splash,” says Dean, who has already booked a table for himself at the three Michelin-starred El Bulli to gain further inspiration.

So is molecular gastronomy a ‘gimmick’ or a ‘fad’ as its critics like to say? Says Sethi, “What molecular gastronomy does to food is a subject of great debate. Some feel it goes against the very grain of nourishment, of fulfiling an appetite and of respecting produce in its natural form. Others revel in the manner in which it titillates the palate through what Adria calls ‘unexpected contrasts of flavour, temperature and texture’.” How about trying it out and judging for yourself?        

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