Two weeks ago, I received a long anticipated phone call. “It’s here, you can come and fetch it”. Upon hearing those sweet words I got into the car and drove over to the Windhoek Book Den. I had bought probably the most expensive book ever sold by the shop and they needed a trolley to bring it to the car.
Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet.
The book consists of six volumes and some 2,400 pages and costs a month’s installment on a medium-sized family home.
It covers just about anything and everything to do with cooking: history and fundamentals, techniques and equipment, animals and plants, ingredients and preparations, plated-dish recipes and a kitchen manual (which is printed on washable paper).
After two weeks, the book still stands on my desk, unopened. Besides flipping through the kitchen manual, I have not even removed the plastic wrap. Never has a book intimidated me so much. I suspect that this book will change my life irreversibly and forever. Cooking will never be the same. Hence, the need to cling to my comfort zone, just a little bit longer.
Judging by the sheer number of websites and blogs, books and TV shows, restaurants and chefs dedicated to “molecular” or “modernist” cuisine, science has found its way into the kitchen over the past decade or so. And with it, food, cooking and eating have become surreal entertainment.
Flaming sorbet that does not melt. Ice cream that stretches like bubblegum. Butter made from peas. “Astronaut” ice cream that is taken to the moon and never melts. Instant noodles made by pouring cold liquids into hot soups. Just the other day I read of a project that looks for ways to create meals using a 3-D printer.
Is it all a fad? Will it last and take the place of a well-cooked, medium rare steak, or a well-fluffed omelet?
I believe that science is here to stay, and if Myhrvold and company have any say in that matter, that even home cooks will adopt modernist techniques, equipment and ingredients to create some food magic. Why?
Science makes life easier. Cooking proteins such as meat, fish and chicken (but also vegetables and eggs) in a water bath, sous vide style, reduces the time slaving over a hot stove. Home cooks like that, especially if they have kids. Pressure marinating vegetables in a cream siphon changed with N2O, takes a matter of minutes, not days of waiting. Brilliant.
Science brings consistency. Modernist cooking is all about producing consistent results. Hence, it requires accurate measurements. Temperature, volume, and ratios are often a home cook’s biggest enemies. Forget about cups, teaspoons, tablespoons etc. as measures of volume. The problem: not all cups, teaspoons and tablespoons are the same hence you may have too little or too much. Not good enough. Weigh everything, even your egg yolks. Cooking your steak to an internal temperature of 53°C is far more accurate than cooking it to “medium-rare”. Experienced cooks and chefs may better guess when your steak is medium-rare, but ultimately it is still a guess. Good thermometers do not guess; simple as that.
Science can produce more healthy food. Ever wondered why cream gets stiff when whipped? It is because of its high fat content. Want a lower fat option? Simply add some xanthan gum to milk and whip. The addition of guar gum to a homemade salad dressing not only reduces the amount of fat required, but also prevents the emulsion from splitting.
Science is fun. Who does not want to eat something exciting? Who does not want to be amazed by their food? All it takes is a little understanding of a few science principles and some chemistry. The truth behind Heston Blumenthal’s flaming apple sorbet is gellan gum, the same additive that is used to make gummy bears. It can withstand temperatures up to 120°C which allows you to douse your favorite sorbet with vodka or whiskey or something similar and light it. As long as the flame burns below 120°C, your sorbet will not melt. N Zorbit M or modified tapioca maltodextrin turn fats into powders. Methylcellose is a stabilizer that is soluble in cold water and gels at higher temperatures (above 47°C) thus enabling the chef to make instant noodles by pouring a liquid substance into a hot soup and watch them turn into set noodles right in front of your very eyes.
So, will we see Namibia embracing modernist cooking anytime soon? I fear not. Getting to know the potential of these new ingredients takes time, especially if you have no chemistry background. It takes serious experimenting, which takes not only time (which many commercial chefs have little off) but also resources and commitment. The existing technology is getting cheaper but is still expensive here. Centrifuges, homogenizers and rotovac’s all cost a pretty penny, and might be out of reach for commercial chefs, let alone home cooks.
Some ingredients are hard to get and are not locally available. Hell, I have tried and other than agar-agar, xanthan gum and guar gum, my enquiries have provoked only blank stares or nervous giggles. Namibia is not a country filled with curiosity or the desire to innovate. Thankfully, however, we have the internet.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle standing in the way of modernist cuisine in Namibia, is our unwillingness to try something new. Get confused and frustrated. Try something new and make it our own. Move things forward. Obtain new knowledge. Push aside the fear for the unknown. I suspect chefs and diners are equal in their commitment to the tried and tested.
Just last night I dined at a new restaurant in town. After speaking to others and reading some reviews I looked forward to trying something new. Yet the menu contained only the bog standard Namibian fare. The food was well cooked, but I could not muster the courage to finish yet another lamb shank. My fellow diners finished their sole, but I could see no enthusiasm in their eyes. Nothing out of the ordinary, down to the same old ice cream flavours: strawberry, chocolate, hazelnut, Amarula, chocolate and mint. Sadly, it has all been done before and will be attempted many times more in the future.
For this week, I provide a recipe that celebrates the traditional flavours of melktert – a favourite with most – but as an ice cream not a tart. And if you could get your hands on some guar gum (try the health food section of Pick-and-Pay, or the whole-food section of SuperSpar) add 1/8th of a teaspoon to the mix. It makes a huge difference.