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Molecular is meaningless

When I am travelling in East Asia, I nearly always order the same breakfast: congee.

This is a rice porridge that most Indians are probably familiar with, even if we call it kanjee. I have had bland congees in China and hot and spicy ones in Thailand. Sometimes they come with pork and sometimes with chicken. Many people like fish in their congee and at fancier hotels, you will be offered prawns or shellfish.


We sometimes fail to realise just how unusual and exotic congee must sound to Westerners. I have been reading Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck Cookbook, where he tells the story of one of his chefs who had just returned from New York. Heston asked him if he had eaten anywhere interesting.


   The chef said he had gone to a Chinese restaurant.


   That did not strike Heston as being particularly interesting till the chef said “I had fish porridge”.


   Fish porridge?


   Now, Blumenthal was intrigued.


   It turned out, of course, that chef had eaten congee with fish.


   The difference between a great chef and a very good one is that the great chef plucks ideas out of the air and invents dishes based on those ideas. A very good one merely makes tasty food.


   So Blumenthal began to think about porridge and fish. And after days of experimentation he came up with one of his signature dishes: snail porridge. It is much more complicated than that but one simple way to see it is as an oat-meal congee with snails sitting on top of it.


   Because Blumenthal likes to put something of the history of the ingredients into his dishes, he thought of Burgundy (where the snails for the French kitchen usually come from) and flavoured the dish with the classic Burgundy flavours of parsley and ham and garlic butter (which is how snails are usually served: in their shells submerged in garlic butter).


   When the dish first appeared on the menu of the Fat Duck in 2003 it was hailed as a triumph of molecular gastronomy with the implicit suggestion that Blumenthal was a bit of a mad scientist who thought up crazy dishes.


   In fact, if you look at the recipe, there is nothing especially molecular about the technique. Apart from the genius of its conception, the only thing that Blumenthal did differently was to work out how the oats should be cooked. Sometimes they were too gloopy. Sometimes, they were too swamp-like. Eventually he worked out that the oat flakes that had crumbled into a powder at the bottom of the box cooked faster than the rest making the texture gluey. He sieved them out and got the texture he wanted.


   Snail Porridge is still one of the dishes most associated with Heston but hardly anyone understands that it had little to do with so-called molecular gastronomy. Instead, it had to do with his creative genius. Some of his other most famous dishes owe their success to his understanding of the principles of science not to any special technology, which is unavailable to others.


   His Triple Cooked Chips are probably the most aspirational potato dish in the world for chefs. (Joel Robuchon’s pomme puree comes second.) Chefs now treat Heston’s technique as the gold standard.


   The key to the dish is Heston’s understanding of the cooking process. As Blumenthal says “as well as the low moisture content (in the potatoes used) it is the fissures that are created as the potato breaks up that later help the formation of a crunchy crust while frying.”


"But for too many chefs, it’s all about so-called pointless “molecular gastronomy” and the same dated presentation techniques of a decade ago."

  His technique involves cooking the cut potatoes in water till they are almost falling apart. You then put them in the fridge till they have cooled down and regained their shape.


   Next, you extract as much of the moisture as you can from the chips. The original techniques involved pin-pricking the chips by hand (which is how you can do it at home) though modern chefs may use a dessicator. When the chips went in to the oil, the lack of moisture in the potatoes and the little fissures that been created during the first cooking in water allowed them to get the juicy, crispy texture that is their signature.


   Triple cooked chips were invented in 1993 when no chef had heard of molecular gastronomy and they seem to capture what Blumenthal’s cooking is about: understanding the ingredients and the cooking process to get the best possible results.


   His contemporaries Ferran Adria and Albert Adria had a slightly different focus, creating more chemical and technology-dependant recipes that also revolutionised cooking. From spherification to microwave sponge cakes they created a kitchen style where the pan seemed to matter less and less.


   They also gifted foams to the world. Years ago, when El Bulli was still open, I interviewed Ferran Adria, I asked him if he was at all apologetic about all the useless foams and ‘airs’ that talentless chefs needlessly put on their plates in an effort to seem cutting-edge.


   Adria laughed but would not accept responsibility. And his kind of ‘molecular’ plates have fallen from fashion (though his techniques will endure). I feel sorry for chefs who think that spherification is cool or that fruit ‘caviar’ is an innovation worth persisting with. (If you are fond of El Bulli-type scientific magic then try Disfrutar in Barcelona where the techniques have been taken to the next level.)


   Looking at The Fat Duck Cookbook, it becomes clear that even in the early days of the restaurant, Blumenthal was never big on foams and spheres. He was aware of the uses of alginates (a food industry ingredient, dating back to the 1950s), which are now popular with chefs as emulsifiers and thickeners but he never went down the same route as the Adrias who used them for spherification.


   The most important Blumenthal dishes have at least two path-breaking innovations. His most famous dessert, Bacon and Egg Ice-cream also has one discovery along with the two innovations.


   Pastry chefs will still tell you that you need to cook the crème anglaise for an ice cream to 85°C till it coats the back of a spoon. But egg yolks actually coagulate at 72°C, long before chefs realise that the coagulation has begun. So Blumenthal started cooking his crème anglaise to 69°C.


   It was while experimenting with temperatures that he had an idea: what happens if you heat the anglaise to a higher temperature than 85°C?


   He ended up with a custard that was more like scrambled egg, pureed it and churned it. He now had two discoveries: the right temperature for a custard plus the wonderful flavours that were created when you cooked it to a much higher temperature.


   Next came an innovation. Who said sweet and savoury could not mix? He put bacon in the ice cream.


   And a second innovation: wouldn’t you get a smoother ice cream if, instead of putting it in an ice cream machine, you made instant ice cream using liquid nitrogen to freeze the custard? (Is that a technological innovation? I don’t know. Is using an ice cream machine a non-technological approach?)


   For me, these kind of dishes sum up what the cooking revolution of the 21st Century is really about. It’s not about presentation skills: about soils, airs and foams. It’s about understanding the way to make the most of ingredients and revisiting old favourites to make them better.


   One consequence of this revolution is that old myths have been shattered. All that nonsense about searing meat to seal the juices in (nothing is sealed by searing) has now been discredited. So has the idea that the tomato has most of its flavour on the outside. (The inside, at the centre, is where the flavour is strongest.) Kitchen lore has it that green vegetables must always be cooked in salted water. This has been shown to be nonsense: the salt does not fix the colour.


   I often wonder if too many chefs have seen the revolution but have missed the meaning. Very few Indian chefs understand the new techniques or use them well. There are obvious exceptions. Gaggan took Adria-inspired techniques even further for his Yoghurt Explosion and his micro-wave idli. Manish Mehrotra understands the techniques but uses them sparingly, though his most famous dessert, a modern version of Daulat Ki Chaat, would not work without technology.


   But for too many chefs, it’s all about so-called pointless “molecular gastronomy” and the same dated presentation techniques of a decade ago. And though no serious chef in the Western world likes being told he is making molecular food (Adria and Blumenthal both hate the term), Indian chefs embrace the name with pride.


   Adria closed El Bulli years ago. Heston is now more interested in the effect of the brain on taste and in the properties of water.


   They have moved on. And alas, our chefs missed the point they were trying to make.



Posted On: 22 Feb 2020 11:30 AM
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