The Taste With Vir: The surprising science behind leftover food
The TV show Lessons in Chemistry and recent research suggest that leftovers can taste better and be healthier than fresh foods, especially those with starches.
I don’t know if you have been watching Lessons in Chemistry, the TV adaptation of the best-selling book. The plot deals with a young research chemist who is denied opportunities to work in labs on account of her gender. Later, she finds success as a TV chef. But while most TV chefs of the era (the show is set in late 1950s-early 1960s America) were more like Julia Child, our heroine becomes an early prototype for Heston Blumenthal or Ferran Adria, saying things like “cooking is chemistry” and applying scientific principles to her work in the TV kitchen.
The food science stuff may or may not interest you, but there is one bit that I found fascinating. When a TV executive who is trying to persuade her to start a show tries a pie she has baked, he discovers that it actually tastes better the next day than it did when she first baked it.
At an intuitive and anecdotal level this will surprise nobody. We all know that often a curry can taste better the next day. We say that this is because the spices have had an opportunity to mingle. So it is with a biryani. While I wouldn’t keep a biryani for too long, many of us have noticed that a raid on the fridge where a pot of biryani has been left over from the previous day can be surprisingly delightful. Even cold, the biryani may taste better than it did when it had just been cooked.
In Lessons in Chemistry, a scientific explanation involving starch molecules is offered to explain the improvement in the flavour of the pie. I am an arts student so I have to admit that I didn’t entirely follow it.
But I am guessing that the writers and the producers checked out the science. In which case, they may have managed to explain to us why leftovers sometimes taste so much better the next day.
What the show does not tell us is that leftovers — especially those that involve starches — may actually be healthier for you than some fresh foods.
And yet, that is exactly what some research is now suggesting. As this research was featured in the New York Times and was not part of a scene in a TV show, I was able to read and re-read the article till I finally understood what the researchers had discovered!
Doctors always tell us not to consume too many starches like pasta and rice. There is a reason for this. Starches cause your blood sugar to rise. This is not good for anyone, and especially not for people with diabetes or those who are pre-diabetic. That’s why, as you grow older, you are told to cut down on starches and to eat more fibrer.
Except that scientists have now discovered a hack. They argue that if you put your biryani (or your rice or your pasta) in a fridge overnight, then something wonderful happens to the starch content.
Much of it turns into what are called resistant starches. There are starches that do not break down in your system and release sugars. Instead they travel unbroken to the end of your gut where they may feed the good bacteria in your system.
Even if you reheat your leftover biryani/rice/pasta or whatever, it will not make much difference to the newly-formed resistant starch which will retain its shape and not release sugars.
How does this work? Well, first cooking and then cooling causes the starch molecules in the food to be more highly packed together, making them more difficult to digest. When the starch becomes more ‘resistant’ this way then the sugar molecules in the starch do not break up and enter your blood stream as easily as they would if you were just eating, say, freshly cooked rice.
But it gets better. When you cook and cool a starch, you also increase its fibre content. All doctors will tell you that fibre is good for you. Usually they will ask you to eat fruits, vegetables, oats and the like to increase your fibre intake. These are still valid prescriptions. But what if you could get some of the fibre you need simply by leaving your biryani in the fridge overnight?
If you are sceptical about medical discoveries that seem too good to be true, then join the club. I am notoriously sceptical about so-called discoveries which often tend to explode when the next round of research takes place.
So, I imagine is the New York Times, reporting on the discovery, it noted ‘it sounds like just another internet health hack’. But having examined the evidence, the Times took the discovery seriously enough to feature it in its pages.
That’s when I began to pay attention to it: Variations of this thesis have been floating around on YouTube and the web for some months now and I have always been leery of the claims made for reheated starch.
But now, I am willing to give it a try. First, Lessons in Chemistry. And now this. Obviously, food left overnight has taste and health benefits that we need to consider.
Bring on the leftover biryani!