Smoking cocktails and freeze-dried fruits were magical. Until everyone learnt the tricks
I vividly recall the first thing I ate at Gaggan, Bangkok, four years ago. On the 13-course tasting menu, it was listed simply as Yogurt. But what arrived, sitting in a soup spoon, was a milky white sphere resembling a neatly trimmed poached egg. I slid it into my mouth, the thin skin burst, and out gushed a gently chaat-flavoured raita. I couldn’t understand what I’d eaten.
It was the perfect example of one of the wonders of molecular gastronomy: spherification. The process involves dropping flavoured liquids emulsified with sodium alginate into a calcium chloride bath. The alginate creates a thin skin around the liquid, shaping it into a sphere.
In 2012, Gaggan was one of five Indian restaurants in the world using this technique. Today, in Mumbai alone, restaurants doing molecular gastronomy are in abundance. Chefs are using liquid nitrogen to make cold chaats; creating powdered, freeze-dried fruits to garnish desserts; and using high-speed beaters to whip up clouds of chutney foam.
Too much of a good thing?
Sure, molecular gastronomy — from the name to the science-lab-like techniques — has something magical about it. And who doesn’t like magic? But what happens when every second person can pull off a magic trick? It ceases to amaze.
Have too many restaurants jumped on to the bandwagon just to cash in on the molecular gastronomy scene? Zorawar Kalra, who runs several restaurants based on molecular gastronomy (Masala Library, MasalaBar, Farzi Cafe), thinks so. “Molecular is a much-abused word, and there are many restaurants that use it as a gimmick,” he says.
He’s probably right. It’s not difficult to find instances where molecular techniques have been mindlessly applied without adding to a dish or a drink. Cocktails infused with wood smoke using smoking guns taste like stale beedis. Deconstructed vada pavs or pani puris for the diner to assemble at the table is a malaise that need to end.
But not everyone abuses the tools. Monkey Bar, Bandra (W), uses sous vide to slow-cook Goan sausages to break down the tough muscle fibres. At Chemistry 101, Chef Gomes has a unique take on the Caprese Salad: A ball of bocconcini is blown up into an ostrich-egg-sized balloon and garnished with balsamic vinegar pearls; accompanying shot glasses contain bocconcini balls topped with liquid nitrogen-chilled rasam sorbet.
How it all started
But where did it all begin? The term Molecular and Physical Gastronomy was coined by physicist Nicholas Kurti and physical chemist Hervé This in 1988. Kurti was studying the science of cooking since the late ’60s, and needed a catch-all phrase. After Kurti’s death, in 1998, This shortened it to Molecular Gastronomy. American food science writer Harold McGee’s book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (1984), brought it closer to chefs. But it was Ferran Adrià in Spain, and Heston Blumenthal in the UK, who popularised the concept.
Adrià started using scientific techniques at his Michelin-starred restaurant El Bulli in Roses, Catalonia. He began experimenting with gels, foams, textures, and spheres, creating famous dishes like olive spheres, savoury parmesan marshmallows, and puffed popcorn cloud. These spawned thousands of versions, including Gaggan’s spherified Yoghurt.
READ MORE: 5 must-try molecular dishes in Mumbai
Inspired by McGee’s book, Blumenthal created grain-mustard with bacon and egg ice cream, and snail porridge (porridge made with snails). Both chefs vehemently dislike the term molecular gastronomy. Blumenthal prefers multi-sensory cooking; Adrià calls it deconstructivist (sic), while Anand goes for “progressive Indian cuisine”. The argument is solid: gastronomy is a science, not a style of cooking. Most serious chefs are more amenable to their food being described as modernist or avant garde.
Like El Bulli, Indian modernist restaurants were aiming for a re-interpretation and re-presentation of food. That this could be done with Indian cuisine had been proved by Indian chefs in London (Vineet Bhatia, Atul Kocchar, Vivek Singh) who gave birth to a movement called Modern Indian. Or, more appropriately, Modern Indian 1.0.
Modern Indian 2.0 was created not for a western but a local audience. The plating was not French. Global ingredients like foie gras and blue cheese were paired with Indian flavours. And two or more Indian cuisines were combined to create a new dish. Chefs saw that diners were bored of eating only traditional food, and were open to new experiences.
Modernist techniques became a useful tool for chefs to rework Indian cuisine. Kalra says, “Food needs to be representative of its era. Molecular gastronomy represents the time.”
Almost every modernist cuisine restaurant in the country uses El Bulli Texturas, a range of natural food additives, and instruments created by Adria. Anil Chandok, based in Mumbai, the exclusive importer of these products to India, says there’s a year-on-year growth in sales. Chandok says, “In the beginning, Texturas were a hard-sell, and only a couple of chefs wanted them. Now, the usage is widespread. Chefs are using them to alter the appearance of foods, and to modify taste by using them as a substitute for conventional ingredients.”
Pros and cons
While chefs grumble about copycats, diners aren’t complaining. Trends spread. That’s the whole point of them. Someone creates something that captures the imagination of an audience. Others adapt, innovate, or copy.
Sure, restaurateurs spreading the idea of modernist cuisine often aren’t adding anything new in their replication. But imagine if Adria and Blumenthal refused to disclose their secrets, and wanted to be the only chefs in the world to offer this cuisine. Would we have been better or worse off? Also, as a concept loses its uniqueness and becomes the norm, it forces chefs to innovate anew.
It’s already happening. Kalra says we’re entering a “post-molecular world”. Masala Bar, for instance, is experimenting with cocktails using centrifuges, magnetic stirring, and rotary evaporation. What we’re looking at is not a rejection of modernist cuisine, but an evolution.
Note by Note cuisine is the next big idea, according to Hervé This. Instead of using flesh or plant ingredients, it uses pure chemical compounds. In a paper published in 2013, This says the cuisine is like, “a painter using primary colours, or a musician composing note by note”. So, instead of a beef or eggs, the chef will play with pure protein to create a steak or a souffle.
On similar lines, Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology, and co-author of The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining, is putting his money on gastrophysics. Gastrophysics is the study of how we experience food and drink. Spence believes who we eat with, the setting we eat in, the background sounds and colour, the colour and texture of the food, how it is arranged on the plate or the table, and even the choice of cutlery, affect taste. Spence has found an ally in Blumenthal as this is closely related to his idea of multi-sensory dining.
How it will play out is unclear at the moment. But what is clear is that modernist cuisine is not going anywhere soon.