Thursday, March 15, 2007

Conservation of Energy

I am become sumo, the eater of worlds. I am more sushi than man, more okonomiyaki than flesh. It transpires that brain work in the day and foot work at the weekends is not enough to counter the calorie intake from the stupendous food out here.

I should take note from the 24 hour a day food programs which fill most channels on the television. Whereas in the UK there are an uncountable infinity of programs related to cooking, most of the food programs in Japan are about eating, they are filled with slim men and women who populate every channel and clearly spend all of their time stuffing their faces. The key to how they stay svelte, however, is that they expend the same amount of energy gasping and wowing over the food as they take in, in Calories - this is truly over the top enthusing. Spend your meals jumping up and down excitedly, waving your chopsticks and you too can eat what you want as often as you want. Atkins et al, eat your heart out (err)!

This is another food post, mostly unrelated to Japanese cuisine but the science of food.

Ever since reading about Heston Blumenthal and his nitro green tea and lime mousse, I've been rather fascinated by molecular gastronomy; the idea of using science in the kitchen as a driving force rather than a way of explaining why something works after the fact. With practice we become pretty good at using our intuition to come up with combinations of flavours and tastes which will be complimentary, but this intuition is also clouded by prejudices, the likes of which are now being broken down. I can see that all of this may seem a little like the Emperor's New Clothes, and people are simply being cheated out of large sums of money just for the novelty of eating bacon and egg ice-cream but I buy into it - I've eaten enough weird combinations to know that most people live in a tiny corner of culinary parameter space and there's a lot more to be explored.

On somewhat less extreme notes the basic methods of cooking are being questioned. For instance, the lore which says that steak should be cooked quickly at a very high temperature to seal in the juices turns out to be fiction. The Maillard reaction does sear the outside and give a good flavour and colour, combining the proteins of the meat with the natural sugars, but in fact this method drives out the moisture, rather than sealing it in. A better way to prepare a steak is to put it in a sealed plastic bag, in water at around 60 degrees centigrade for an hour or so and then at the last minute, remove it from the bag and quickly sear the outside. The details of this and many other molecular gastronomy tips and tricks can be found at this site, which includes a rather fun blog.

One of the major bonuses of molecular gastronomy has been the study of the aromas and flavours in a large number of ingredients to see which will combine well. This often results in strange mixture, but I am promised that the outcomes can be spectacular - white chocolate and caviar, for instance both contain high levels of amines and compliment each other extremely well - I'm looking forward to trying this one. I've always enjoyed playing around in the kitchen with rather unusual combinations and it's great to understand some of the reasons behind why such odd mixtures work well.

Heston Blumenthal not only aims to please the taste and smell senses but has experimented with sounds and counterintuitive combinations of temperature. From this article:
"In doing work on the perception of crispness, we were looking at sound cues and the sound of food," says Spence. "The feel of the food in your mouth is determined largely by the sound of it in your ear. We looked at the particular sounds of food that give you that sense of crispness or crunchiness. Can we do things to the taste by manipulating the sound? We both worked on an idea for the restaurant in which headphones are used to pick up the sound of the food that you are eating, which is then played back to the customer by changing the sound subtly and thereby affecting the perception of the crispness."

I haven't had the chance to go to The Fat Duck but I am told by a friend who has that it is truly spectacular (T - please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments).

Living in Asia I'm regularly faced with tastes and textures which are out of the ordinary for Western pallets, for instance in Japan, chicken cartilage is regularly crunched on, grilled in a soy based sauce, and I'm coming to rather like this new addition. The list of new tastes and textures I've come across in China is almost endless.

In fact I was motivated to write the above having found out about El Bulli, voted in 2006 as The Best Restaurant in the World (The Fat Duck took top spot in 2005). El Bulli uses techniques from molecular gastronomy for its recipes and the head chef, Ferran Acosta, spends six months out of every year experimenting in his workshop, perfecting his recipes. The 30+ course meals are fully booked for 2007 but as I will not only be in the same continent but the same country (Spain) by this time next year, I'm highly tempted to see how to get on the waiting list.

and back to Japan where I'm beginning to learn how onomatopoeic the language is. Perhaps onomatopoeia isn't quite the right name because many of these words describe feelings as well as things which make a noise - if anyone can tell me if there's an alternative word for that, I would be grateful to find out.

I asked on the off-chance a few weeks ago if there was a specific word in Japanese for the feeling of wasabi going up your nose, and indeed there is. Tsunn, which I can't find in the dictionary but I have heard it from separate sources, describes the feeling as the wasabi wafts up into your nasal cavity and makes your eyes burn. This is in the same class of words as kyeen (spelling unknown) which is the Japanese for brain freeze - the icecream induced headache. In fact every thought or feeling I've asked about has a Japanese onomatopoeia to describe it. Today's was petti (pronounced like the French petit) as the sound of tobiko (flying fish roe) popping in your mouth. I'll leave it there for today. Happy eating!


Anonymous said...

Do you know if Tsunn, the feeling of wasabi going up your nose, is kanji? Can you find out? I'd love to know if there is a related word/character in Chinese (of which the Japanese kanji, if it exists, might be a loosely-based meaning loan).

Unknown said...

I think that most Japanese onomatopoeia are written as hiragana, rather than kanji and certainly when I've seen tsunn written it has not been in kanji (though I can't tell katakana from hiragana). I'll see if I can discover any more.

Apart from 麻 (má) do you know of a specific word for the feeling of eating Sichuan pepper? I should know this but never thought to ask the relevant authority. Does Chinese have many such words?

Anonymous said...

麻 is the only word I know of to describe the feeling. Can't think of any other such words off the top of my head that English doesn't already have, like sweet, sour, salty, spicy, etc.

Unknown said...

つーん seems to be the hiragana for tsunn though nobody I've spoken to can find it on the web. When pronounced correctly it does mimic the feeling pretty well. Though it happens to be a word which does have a Chinese counterpart pronunciation, 'cun', I think this may simply be a coincidence.