A Cheeseburger Made with Liquid Nitrogen? New Book Hailed as the Bible of Futuristic Culinary Art
MUMBAI - The gastronomic world is readying for a futurist revolution with the hotly anticipated release of Nathan Myhrvold's. An innovative exploration of how science and food interact, the 2,438-page, six-volume tome is causing a major stir.
Top Asian cuisine chef and restaurateur David Chang has called the bible of futuristic culinary art, which has recipes for cheeseburgers made with liquid nitrogen, french fries fried in ultrasound and pea soup prepared in a centrifuge, "the cookbook to end all cookbooks".
Along with the headline-grabbing recipes, Myhrvold, a 51-year-old scientist and millionaire inventor also seems to have created - along with his Seattle-based Cooking Lab - what could be the definitive practical study of what humans eat.
Formerly a chief technology officer of Microsoft, Myhrvold studied quantum field theory in curved space time with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge University. As well as holding over 200 patents, he has a doctorate in theoretical and mathematical physics, a master's degree in mathematical economics from Princeton University, and funds research into extra-terrestrial civilizations.
His latest mission, to revolutionize cooking with science, takes the food experience galaxies forward from what our Paleolithic ancestors chomped on in Cafe Stone Age. It suggests that descendants in year 26,035 AD may view the pizzas and pastas of 2011 with bemusement.
Chang's restaurant, Momofuku in New York's East Village, might soon be dishing out such modernistic fare from the pages of Myhrvold's book. Dishes like gleaming green pea butter, bagel broth and gel noodles, made from ingredients like liquid nitrogen and hydrocolloids - substances forming gel with water.
Asian-origin chefs like the South India-born Anjana Shanker and Johnny Zhu from Shanghai are part of the 20-person Cooking Lab team, and they likely had a hand in makeovers to the traditional Indian curries and East Asian cuisine featured in the 1,600 recipes and techniques mentioned in Modernist Cuisine.
"Modernist Cuisine includes a 150-page chapter that explains the often-surprising science underlying culinary techniques long used in both Western and Eastern cuisines," says Wayt Gibbs, editor-in-chief of the Modernist Cuisine project.
For instance, wok hei, the characteristic flavor of Asian cooking in a wok or tava - a shallow metallic, round-bottomed vessel - is easier to understand knowing the chemistry involved. "The book explains why burner power is so crucial to wok cooking," Gibbs told Asia Times Online, "why the kind of metal in the pan matters, and step-by-step photos show how to season a wok to achieve a non-stick, rust-proof patina."
Dr Myhrvold calls the 20,000 square-feet Cooking Lab, formerly a warehouse, the world's first and only space that combines cookbook studio, research kitchen and general laboratory.
Paul Adams of Popular Science journal described his recent adventures at the lab, biting into a buttered toast he said he will never forget in his life: "The bread was spread thickly with the brightest-green butter I've ever seen ... an extract of pure green peas, blended to a puree, spun in a centrifuge at 13 times the force of gravity, and separating the puree into three layers: a bland puck of starch; a vibrant-colored, seductively sweet pea juice; and a thin layer of the pea's natural fat, pea-green and unctuous. A standard pea yields about 3% fat, so the half-ounce [14.1 grams] of glistening viridian on my toast was the equivalent of perhaps a pound and a half of peas condensed into a single bite."
Dishes like the fluorescent green pea butter come out of Cooking Lab gizmos such as ultrasonic water baths, homogenizers, vacuum filters, centrifuges, freeze dryers and rotary evaporators. Much of the equipment was bought from online auctioneers eBay and GoIndustry DoveBid.
The ultrasonic water bath, for instance, generally features in jewelers and dentists' hands to clean ornaments and teeth. Myhrvold's food adventurers though discovered that this gadget, that delivers super-high-frequency vibrations, creates tiny fissures in the surface of chopped potatoes, and results in French-fries with a much more crisper exterior.
The Modernist Cuisine project promises universal interest - whether to ardent plain cheese sandwich and tofu patrons, gourmets, top chefs or to merry food anarchists who believe cooking merely involves hurling into the pressure cooker every condiment in the kitchen except the dishwashing soap powder. The majority of the Modernist Cuisine lab recipes though can be made in a conventional home kitchen, assure the project team.
The Cooking Lab invested the painstaking effort of any major scientific project, and cut no corners. For just the additives portion of one dish, for instance, the team worked up 56 variations of additives, binders, and emulsifiers, in at least three different concentrations.
Besides revelations such as the thermal dynamics of coffee and cream - apparently adding creamer to coffee cools the coffee 20% slower than black coffee - the four-year old project could unravel significant benefits for the developing world.
Modernist Cuisine could unleash the kind of spin-offs that come with breaching any technology frontier. Nobody predicted YouTube and online medical diagnosis, for example, when New York-born computer engineer Raymond Tomlinson allegedly sent the world's first e-mail in 1971.
Nor did anyone expect that France's Trains Grande Vitesse (TGV) would be hurtling at 574 kilometers per hour in 2011 when, circa 1750, the boy James Watt was playing with steam from a kettle, in Greenock, Scotland, instead of brewing the afternoon tea.
The Modernist Cuisine project itself is a spin-off, forming part of the Washington-based "Intellectual Ventures" that Myhrvold co-founded after retiring as chief strategist and chief technology officer of Microsoft Corporation.
Intellectual Ventures aims to support inventors to manufacture and globally market their creations, and has reviewed over 500,000 inventions. Its Asian operations started in 2007 with regional headquarters in Singapore, and offices in Japan, Korea, China and India. Myhrvold's team in Bangalore is working on using laser beams to preserve food.
Modernist Cuisine combines Myhrvold's multi-layered love of science, technology, food, photography, innovation and art, with the energy that enables him to seemingly live multiples lives at once. He is no amateur foodie either, having trained at top restaurants in Seattle and at Ecole De La Varenne, the well-known French cooking school that English chef Anne Willan founded at Santa Monica, California, in 1975.
The actual success of Modernistic Cuisine could be in other rewards cooked up long-term. Given the reality that volition defines directions new technology takes to serve society, Myhrvold's work could hope to offer cost-effective and delicious nutrition to hungry millions worldwide. Malnutrition kills five million children a year, and one child every six seconds, according to United Nations statistics.
A link of positive volition already exists, with the book co-author Maxime Bilet working with the Seattle-based project Hunger Intervention Program that offers healthy meals and basic cooking skills to economically weaker sections of society.
Modernist Cuisineappears destined to provide answers Myhrvold and his multicultural team never expected, given the fact that non-violent know-how from honest, hard work never goes waste.