Wednesday, June 04, 2008
You wouldn't be surprised if you found out which subjects I enjoyed most when I was in secondary school. Apart from English and Literature, the other subject I adored was Home Economics. Although I only took the subject for the first two years of my secondary school life, it certainly made evident, my love for cooking. Even in primary school, I had joined a pretty cool ECA (extra-curricular activity) called Home Management. This after-school activity of sorts lasted about 2 to 3 hours and it was mandatory for us to choose at least one ECA. Well today it's called CCA (co-curricular activity) although I don't see the difference calling it ECA or CCA. So anyway, my Home Managment CCA was pretty useful - we were taught how to fold cocktail napkins, how to set the table and of course, how to cook. I learnt how to bake marble cakes, rock buns, vol au vents, pizza toast and the works. People who meet me for the first time are always fascinated with my immense affection for all things culinary. Some find it intriguing, others find it amusing and till today, I can't really explain how I came to love food; not just the technical aspects but also the historical, scientific and cultural (and some would say artistic) sides of it.
Perhaps I started young, or perhaps it was simply the fact that food is much celebrated in my home. My talented Peranakan father always fed me and my two younger siblings with the best sambal belachan, devil curry, assam pedas, sambal sotong, ayam buah keluak, babi pongteh, etc... His portions were always quite generous. "Eat, eat, there's plenty more in the kitchen, don't worry, just eat", he'll say, in a highly encouraging tone. Dad thought we were too skinny (though I begged to differ, I think we were just nice, normal, healthy kids) and I must say I didn't have any complaints. Us kids were always well fed and I guess I grew to appreciate the deliciousness that ensued after the aromatic wafts of spices that graced our dining area ever so frequently. Such is the beginning of the my love affair with food and it has since evolved into something quite special.
Call me a foodie or an aspiring chef if you wish; to me, I'm just a girl who realised just how amazing our tastebuds are. Perhaps it is a natural process - people who enjoy their food end up in the kitchen because that's the only way they can ensure that their favourite dish won't remain a distant memory even after the restaurant has closed down or standards, dropped. Is it then safe to say that I have indeed stumbled into the kitchen only to find a world of wonder and pure magic? I guess so.
It is very much an adventure, this relationship I have with food. I get an adrenalin rush when something I cook or bake turns out better than I had imagined. But of course there are those times where I just shake my head in disappointment at that sunken cake or horrendous looking mess. Trust me, I have had my fair share of kitchen disasters. No one can avoid it - it might have happened to you once, or twice or thrice, but at the end of the day, you learn that it's okay because there's always next time - or you blame the oven/stove/pan and weather.
There are many reasons for kitchen disasters. One key component is the lack of understanding of the cooking process or of the ingredients. This is where science steps in. Mind you, science was one of my weakest subject. I never really understood why we had to learn osmosis, condensation, and atoms. Okay, let's put it this way: I know science is important and necessary. I just didn't like how it was taught.
Fast forward to today and I will boldly say that if Heston Blumenthal had been my science teacher and used chocolate to explain the nature of molecules, then I would probably have had ample 'A's for my science subjects.
The chef and owner of The Fat Duck (currently the second best restaurant in the world according to the World's Best Restaurants List by Restaurant Magazine) is truly a force to be reckoned with. He is the man behind the controversial egg and bacon ice cream, including his restaurant specials such as snail porridge, beetroot jellies, white chocolate and caviar buttons, grain mustard icecream in red cabbage gazpacho, and crab icecream (yes c-r-a-b. that crustacean famous for its ability to walk sideways).
Mr. Blumenthal, a Michelin starred chef (all of three!) who has been called a chemist/magician/scientist/chef is someone who embraces the power of science to break the normal notions you and I have about food. And yet, he doesn't quite like the term molecular gastronomy. To him, the term only complexes things. In an interview with the Guardian, he says that 'Molecular makes it sound complicated...and gastronomy makes it sound elitist'. He then lets on that the term was only 'dreamt up in 1992 by a physicist called Nicholas Kurti who needed a fancy name for the science of cooking so he could get a research institute to pay attention to his work'. That was how the term molecular gastronomy was born, obviously more preferred than a pair of seemingly lack-lustre word known simply as kitchen science.
To me, it is amazing how a chef who has no professional culinary training in any institution whatsoever can venture this far, revving on his search for perfection even if it means using nitrogen, hydrocolloids, and music. Yes music. He is apparently working with Sony to 'push sound at diners in a particular way while they are eating', therefore creating a 'multi-sensory experience' which he believes eating is all about.
Tell me if you aren't already hyped up. I know I am. I've heard about Mr. Blumenthal and his creative approach to food but it is only recently that I've taken a deeper interest. That was when I chanced upon some episodes of his show Kitchen Chemistry. Each programme is only 20 minutes long but is jam packed with loads of interesting facts and techniques ignorant fools like me aren't aware of. It made me sit up and take a second look. Adding water to chocolate - that won't send you to hell, that's what I learnt. Another thing I found out: dark chocolate and blue cheese were made for each other. Talk about a scandalous union. Now this is what an adventurous kitchen venture is about. This man sure knows his stuff. In case you were wondering, the forces that brought dark chocolate and blue cheese together are strongly supported by science (in this case, chemistry). Go watch the programme to find out more.
True enough, I am overwhelmed with awe and excitement. It's not as if I haven't seen or heard of molecular gastromony, of the fusion between science and food. Call it an epiphany if you wish, but Mr. Blumenthal has ignited a sudden passion in me, one that I didn't know existed - a much more rooted interest in science and the way we can use it to optimise taste and experiences in foods we always thought as mundane.
Do I regret not trying harder at science in school? Nah, I don't think so. I believe we were all made for different things but that doesn't mean we cannot be aware of the unknown. Sometimes, it is the way we encounter it. Some ways are more impactful than others and I think right now is the perfect time for me to expose myself to the beauty of utilising science in the kitchen.
Trust me, when you are aware of the intricacies of the things you hold dear, you tend to appreciate it more, and the same can be said for me, now.
I tried to find a simple illustration to explain what I mean and this is the best I could come up with: kuzu mochi.
Don't laugh! I know it sounds really simple and you might think it has got nothing to do with science or anything Mr. Blumenthal has whipped up in his own laboratory of a kitchen. But hear me out.
Now, I'm sure you might have come across arrowroot flour. This is a type of starch that's taken from the arrowroot and it is usually used as a thickener.
I was recently given some arrowroot starch but it didn't come in a flour-like form. Instead, the packet was filled with clumps of white that looked more like crushed chalk pieces than anything else. I was naturally very curious and turned over the packet and saw that it was called kuzu starch.
The major problem I had was that the packet had only Japanese instructions. Yes it was a product from Japan and I did stare at the instructions for quite a while, hoping that the Japanese characters would miraculously make sense to me. I tried hard to fanthom what to do with the starch. I was given three 150g packets and didn't want to waste them so I bravely went home to try and use it the way it was depicted on the packet. It did help that there were illustrations of the method on the packet. But like I said, it came with only Japanese instructions.
After about an hour of furrowed eyebrows and shrouded mystery, I decided to jump right into the unknown and use the starch as common sense would have me do. Some mixing of water and starch was required it seem. Fine, let's mix it, yes it's dissolving, good. Now there appears to be sugar involved, okay, add that in. Mix it, okay, that's done. Now heat it and stir it.
NOW that's the tricky part. Heat can make or break your food. Yes it has that power. I have seen my fair share of burnt clumps and coagulated lumps. If you cook, you would know that the moment you overheat something, it is irreversible. So there I was, stirring and stirring and looking quite bewildered and lost. Seriously, if you stood next to me, you would have known that whatever was in that pot could more or less be in the bin soon enough.
But I had faith. I thought that it was okay, that science is science but if I put my love into it, I could make this work. The recipe supposedly gave you kuzu mochi. I had no problems making my bean paste so all I had to do was to not screw up the kuzu starch part.
To cut the long story short, I discovered that love itself cannot save an overheated starch mixture and that I shouldn't try to read Japanese.
What was a determined person like me to do? Figure out a way to read the recipe properly of course. The only way to do that is to translate the Japanese characters into proper English. How was I going to do that? Get someone who understands both Japanese and English to translate it for me? Yep but who can do that for me?
Thankfully, I remembered a Japanese friend I made via this humble blog of mind. She's a sweet lady and her name's even sweeter: Yumiko. We've only communicated via emails but we hit it off because of our common love for food. So anyway, I decided that I really wanted to make this kuzu mochi and overcome my scientific mistake and prove to myself that it is possible for me to make food and science work.
I scanned the packet and sent Yumiko the Japanese instructions and within a few days, I got an email from her with the clearly translated instructions dictated in English. After checking out the recipe, I realised I had gotten the steps mixed up. You see what I mean when I repeat how important it is to truly understand the technique and ingredient that you're using? I believe the same thing rings true in a lab as it does in a kitchen. I was to find that out when I tried the recipe for a second time.
The second time was much better. It wasn't perfect but it was better than the first. I ended up with kuzu mochi that resembled the drawing on the packet but somehow I am still not satisfied.
If you think I'm going to start talking about my third attempt, I'm sorry but there is none. I stopped at the second attempt and yes I know I still have that third packet of kuzu starch.
Maybe I will use it soon, and this time with sharper awareness of the science that makes it possible for the starch to gel, for it to be semi-translucent, for it to have such a chewy yet clean texture. Thinking about it now makes me want to kick myself for not having the brains to realise the beauty of science sooner. Yes I am quite stubborn and I used to think science wasn't my cup of tea. Little did I realise that many years down the road, I would be right here, in my own kitchen, playing with baking powder, eggs and butter, and of course kuzu starch, creating my own edible 'scientific experiments' that come in the form of cupcakes, mochi and brownies.
If only my science teacher was as unconventional as Heston Blumenthal and had used chocolate, and ice cream to explain science to me. Maybe, maybe then I could have scored in science. Well that's just a maybe.
No, I'm not going to turn my kitchen into a laboratory. Instead, I'm going to see cooking in a new light. I might not have what it takes to be like Mr. Blumenthal but that does not mean I cannot explore food the way he does.
I am for kitchen science. I am for innovation and exploration. I am for dark chocolate and blue cheese. Now here's the challenge - to make that molten chocolate blue cheese cake just like Blumenthal. The day I master that dessert is the day I go to kitchen science heaven.
How to make Kuzu An-mochi （葛あんもち）
(Kuzu An-mochi means Mochi made from kuzu root starch with sweet adzuki bean paste inside; also called “Kuzu Manju” in Japan)
(葛粉)Kuzu root starch 50 gram (1 package)
(水)Water 200 cc
(砂糖)Sugar 80 gram
(こしあん)Koshi-an (ready-made) 250 gram
(sweet, smooth paste of adzuki beans)
1.In a saucepan, put in kuzu and add water slowly, mixing to dissolve kuzu completely in water. Then add sugar to it and mix thoroughly.
2.Cook it over a medium heat. Stir quickly and frequently with a wooden spatula to mix well. When the color turns milky white, remove the pan from the heat.
3. While hot, using a spatula divide the mixture into several parts in about equal measure and make each into a patty. Make small balls of Koshi-an with your hands (like when making meatballs) and wrap each ball with a kuzu patty. Round each up into a ball with your wet hands. (Make sure Koshi-an is in the center wrapped completely by the Kuzu outside)
4. Spread a wet towel across the bottom of a steam cooker. Onto the wet towel place the balls from Step 3 with enough room between one another. Steam them for 5-6 minutes until the kuzu-mochi become translucent.
5. Remove the steamer from the heat and pour cold water all over the cooked mochi rounds to rapidly cool them down.
6. Wrap them each around with a cherry leaf (make sure to soak the leaves in salt water for a few hours or wash them with strong salt water before use) to make them.