Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Molecular Gastronomy: Awakening the Five Senses

I remember the first time a foodie friend of mine uttered the words “molecular gastronomy.”   “What the hell is that?”, I asked. She explained: In a nutshell, molecular gastronomy is food science. It involves playing around with the physical and chemical transformations of ingredients— creating ice cream out of liquid nitrogen is a classic example. Blasphemy! Food is more of art than science, I thought. The concept was totally new to me and sounded absurd. Witchcraft, magic spells, golden unicorns and now, molecular gastronomy. 
            Five years later, I delightfully chomp down my old thoughts and skepticism after sampling four restaurants that embrace molecular gastronomy. At its best, molecular gastronomy transforms food to the most engaging art form— arousing all five senses to heighten the patron’s dining experience to an ultimate climax.

Taste: mouthfeel, textures, temperature, wine pairing

Chefs play with textures— capsules, powder, gelatine, foam— to bring out the best essence of an ingredient. Chef Sergio Herman does precisely this with his first amuse-bouche. Tofu and mushrooms, in varying textures and forms, are arranged on a black wooden stick. The server tells us to lick it. Yes, lick—  just like Pluto in those Disney cartoons! Stick out your tongue at the end with green powder, then lick your way up slowly to the tip where the puffed tofu rests. The taste of each unique ingredient tickles your palate, before the contrasting textures and flavours fuse in harmony.
Tofu and mushrooms to lick – Oud Sluis, Netherlands

Sight: plating, color, ambience, utensils

Visual artistry pertaining to food is increasingly gaining importance due to the frenzy of food blogging and photography nowadays. It’s the only aspect of food that can be shared with great ease. At Colborne Lane, the visual treat was extended to seeing how ice cream can be created out of thin air (well, liquid nitrogen). That spectacle in itself made the dining experience memorable.
Warm doughnut + nitro ice cream – Colborne Lane, Canada

Touch: how you eat, utensils, interaction

Play with your food. That statement may not have been welcomed in your house, but it has been embraced happily by molecular gastronomy restaurants.  At El Celler de Can Roca, they don’t serve you the olives on a plate; they bring the tree to your table instead. The green caramelized olives dangle from the branches on metal hooks, eagerly awaiting you to pick them with your bare hands. After all, the best dining experience is one that triggers vivid memories and emotions personal to the diner.
Caramelized Olive – El Celler de Can Roca, Spain

Smell: aroma, scents, essence, smoke, fumes

Our tongue can only detect five different flavours— sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savoury. This number goes up to hundreds with the sense of smell. By incorporating aromas and scents in their dishes, chefs are able to create a whole new world of flavours and tastes for their diners to discover. In Alinea, chef Grant Achatz creatively seizes this opportunity. A dish of spice cake sits atop a pillow, that was inflated with cinnamon aroma. Wafts of cinnamon essence float over the dining room throughout the meal, as the plate presses down on the pillow with the help of gravity.
Spice Cake, Persimmon, Rum, Carrot - Alinea, United States

Hearing: story, conversations, ambient sounds

In this assortment of amouse-bouches, the Can Roca brothers unveil their recreation of world flavours encapsulated within five bite-sized spheres. The sphere literally explodes inside your mouth, evoking the essence of the country it represents. As much as the sensory aspect of the experience is important, so is the story behind it. The server explains what ingredients comprise the dish, the best order in which to eat the spheres, what each creation represents and the motivation behind them. Understanding the underlying details behind each dish transforms us— from mere observers to insiders.
The World: Mexico, Peru, Lebanon, Morocco and Korea – El Celler de Can Roca, Spain

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