Diners, it seems, can’t get enough of being fooled: for almost as long as food has been plated and served to others, cooks have been experimenting with dishes designed to deceive or delight with an unexpected nature. In some regions of China, for example, a long history of mock meat and gluten products preceded the rise of the Impossible products by hundreds of years — a practical consideration for some diners constrained by religious belief or inability to purchase meat. Other times, this culinary trompe-l’œil is used to trick the eye (and palate) into a different perspective to jar the brain into considering food in another way (hilariously parodied by a recent Bob’s Burgers, where the title character gets a little too carried away with the lessons offered by celebrity chef Michel Du Rocher’s online Master Class.) The playfulness of Thomas Keller’s salmon tartare cones or the chocolate “dirt” served in potted desserts around the world were meant to evoke a specific feeling or memory as surely as the ratatouille in the namesake movie.
UNITED STATES – NOVEMBER 12: Cornet of salmon tartare to creme fraiche and red onions in New York, … [+]
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As food science studies delve more into the molecular structure of taste (such as sommeliers Francois Chartier, who pairs food and wine based on molecular structure, or Master of Wine Tim Hanni, who examines taste through genetics), new innovations in the food world are contributing to this world of food wizardry. In the wine world, that means corn and yeast molecule-based wine, sake and whisky — without their key ingredients of grapes, rice and barley. “The molecules we use are the same molecules that are found in wine or whiskey,” cofounder Alec Lee told Wine Spectator. “It’s still derived from nature.” The company founders stress the low environmental impact of their product. “We may be scientists and sommeliers by trade, but we are optimists by nature,” they wrote on Endless West’s website, pointing out the lower land and water requirements for their wines and spirits, and therefore a smaller carbon footprint. “By crafting molecular wines and spirits in unprecedented time, and with radical environmental benefits, our work creates new ways to enjoy today’s favorite drinks, far beyond tomorrow.”
All of Endless West’s beverages build upon a neutral grain spirit, according to Wine Spectator, and are therefore still alcoholic beverages. At the other end of the spectrum, news outlets are buzzing about a rumored water enhancer from Walmart that makes a rose wine flavoured drink. (Lest rose fans get too excited, it should be noted that the company’s site shows only kid-friendly grape-flavored product, and most stories stem from a single source: a photo on the Instagram feed of flavor chemist Candy Hunting). Nonetheless, late night hosts such as Stephen Colbert had a field day with reports that the product tastes good when added to vodka: “It’s all the things you love about wine, without the only thing you love about wine,” he joked.
Can a scratch and sniff patch sate a craving for bacon?
On a similar note, a limited edition “meat patch” purporting to help vegans with their bacon cravings has been developed by an Oxford professor of experimental psychology and a Dublin-based food brand Strong Roots. The patch may seem similar to fans of scratch and sniff stickers in their childhood: when scratched, the patch releases the scent of bacon to stifle meat cravings. “Our sense of smell is strongly connected to our ability to taste therefore experiencing food related cues such as smelling a bacon aroma, can lead us to imagine the act of eating that food. Imagine eating enough bacon and you might find yourself sated,” Charles Spence, author of “Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating”, told Business Insider. One could argue that the scent of wood smoke, rather than any actual meat content, triggers the brain towards thoughts of bacon (as purveyors of coconut, seitan or other vegetarian bacon products, not to mention food manufacturers in general, are well aware). Just as the mind can fill in the blanks when it comes to language using surrounding context, it performs similar feats when confronted with a culinary conundrum. When writing about substitutions in the kitchen in his book “The Man Who Ate Everything”, author Jeffrey Steingarten talked about how apple pie made with Ritz crackers is virtually undistinguishable from the real thing because our brains associate the taste of pie with lemon, cinnamon and sugar rather than the apple itself.
In a world where dietary restrictions due to allergies, religious beliefs or just taste preferences are shaping the food manufacturing world anew, it will be interesting to see how this culinary transformation continues to shape the plates of the future.