Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Science and Food: UCLA

Food memories are the strongest of any that I've had in my life.  Diving both elbows in to 'help' my grandmother wrap wontons at the dining table; the beautifully fizzy HK style fruit punch during weekend brunches with my grandfather at the Foreign Correspondents' Club; waking up at some insanely early time to spend hours in line to try the freshest fish I've ever had in my life with my brother at Tsukiji market; every time I have foie, pre- and post- ban.

But I've never been as obsessive and curious about every nuance of food until the last few years - and starting to think more about why that is.  Is it just a pastime? An easy escape from the world at large with all its unsavory worries and woes? A way to assert independence, self and will with low risk or investment?

The answer I like best, for now, is about intention: choosing to take something that is simply essential to sustain life, and making it a reason to celebrate it.  Not just that we are here, and to mindlessly prolong that - but to love and appreciate every moment that we have to marvel at the fact that we are here, and all that goes into making that happen, every day.

That sense of wonder that we lose, when tossed into the daily grind - I love that Dr. Amy Rowat had brought it back - with her Science and Food course at UCLA.  Last year, it featured a series of events made open to the public for the first time - so that anyone who was interested could benefit from learning from some of the greatest minds in the science and culinary worlds from Nathan Myrhvold to Rene Redzepi - superstars that normal people wouldn't otherwise have any amount of access to.  So much so that even A-list chefs from the area, with large legions of fans themselves, turned up in the audience in awe, like teenagers with their first ever backstage pass at a rock concert of their favorite band.

And for a very democratic cost of $20 per event.

...Well Dr. Rowat has put together another great-looking program for 2013, and tickets go on sale through UCLA's Central Ticketing Office today, April 2nd at 10am PST. 

Missed the series last year and what to know what to expect at these lectures? Here's a look at some of the highlights (sorry, this is from memory from a year ago, so apologies in advance for any errors or omissions!!):

The Science of Barbeque - Nathan Myrhvold, Modernist Cuisine.  Is there anything this man can't do? From CTO of Microsoft, to post-doc work under Stephen Hawking, author of the monumental six-volume tome of a 'cookbook to end all cookbooks', it was amazing to hear Mr. Myrhvold explain how to achieve
the juiciest, tastiest barbecue the smart way: via scientific methods. From what I remember: the key is to break the connective tissues in the meat in order to tenderize, ideally using this multi-blade cutter called a Jaccard tenderizer (under $30 at Amazon!), and install reflectors (whether via foil or parallel mirrors) in your barbecue so that heat and light waves hit the meat evenly, to cook it evenly.  And don't sear, it doesn't actually seal in juices but overcooks the top and bottom of the meat.  The lecture was followed by surprise guests for the Q&A panel: who better for an uber-carnivorous discussion than Jon Shook & Vinny Dotolo of Animal & Son of a Gun?

The Exploration of Deliciousness - RenĂ© Redzepi, Restaurant noma & Lars Williams, Nordic Food Lab.  This event easily takes the prize for Best Drama, and not just because the chef of the best restaurant in the world was presenting.  As we entered the lecture hall, we were given a 'box o' deliciousness', with two pipettes, one filled with a soy sauce colored liquid, and a little plastic cup with a golden colored powder. Throughout the lecture, Chef Redzepi emphasized noma's mission to give food a sense of time and place, and challenged western concepts of what consistutes food, and spice, touching on new ingredients discovered through foraging...and then came the taste tests.  The powder was made of caramelized cucumber, used as a spice that can be made into a paste, then a sauce for pasta.  Not dramatic enough? Then we taste the liquid from the pipette, which to me tasted like dark (sweet) soy sauce - and only AFTER we had already downed it - chef reveals that it was made of *cue drum roll* fermented grasshopper.   To hit that fact home - a live demo of the creatures meeting their demise in the blades of a blender, at the hands of Lars, was projected onto a giant screen for the whole lecture hall to see.  Dramatic? Yes.  But it makes an unforgettable and very valid point that if not for our pre-conceptions of/restricted definitions of what food should be - many of us may have no issue with the taste or safety of ingesting things that would look unfamiliar on a menu. And Chef Redzepi challenges chefs and diners alike to unlearn everything they know about food and cooking techniques.  We also got to taste some amazing seaweed ice cream and fermented barley cakes.  Little tastes of noma at $10, love it!!

A Microbe in My Ramen? Altering Food Texture and Flavor Using Microbes - David Chang, momofuku & Peter Meehan, Lucky Peach.  David Chang breaks down what produces the '5th taste' after sweet, sour, salty and bitter: umami: a combination of glutamic acid and aspartic acid.  It was fun hearing about his lab where he rots food on purpose, to try to discover new flavors and ways of producing umami, via the microbes that develop.

A lot of these events were interactive, and with David Chang's event, he prepared mystery samples to demonstrate the concept and taste of umami: the first was a white powder, and the second was a greenish yellow paste - both produced the same umami flavors.  The powder turned out to be MSG (or monosodiumglutamate), a common ingredient in Chinese cooking to artificially reproduce what occurs naturally in things like shiitake mushrooms; the second was a delicious pistachio miso paste that contains the glutamic acid that naturally produces the same flavor as the white powder - we all wished we could have left with tubs of the pistachio miso, it was so good!!

The Sweet Science of Desserts - Jimmy Shaw, Loteria Grill, Sherry Yard, Spago & Bill Yosses, The White House

Loved hearing Chef Jimmy Shaw talk about growing up with, and his love of, Mexican food - and the samples he gave of purees of tortilla soup to demonstrate viscosity!

The 'Sweets' lecture will also go down in history as the one in which food geeks gathered to 'flavor trip' on these mberry pills on a Saturday morning on UCLA campus.  Apparently these are a modern way to replicate what this specific type of berry does to turn sour, acidic and bitter flavors sweet: using a glycoprotein!  At the tasting station, we were asked to taste some lime wedges before and after popping a pill.  The lime was expectedly sour and not something you could eat on its own - but after a tablet of mberry, the same lime tasted incredibly sweet - I couldn't get enough of it.  It was definitely...a trip. 

You can also view videos of each lecture at the Science and Food site here

Again the announced program for 2013 looks great, and you can get tickets through UCLA's Central Ticketing Office starting today, April 2nd at 10am PST.  (Note that ticket prices this year have gone up a bit at $25 per event + $5.90 convenience charge if purchasing online at Ticketmaster...)


Science and Food (UCLA)
Upcoming Event Dates:
  • April 17: Primitive x Modern: Cultural Interpretations of Flavors (Chef Alex Atala): 7pm Moore Hall 100
  • April 25: Edible Education (Chef Alice Waters, Dr. Wendy Slusser & Chef David Binkle): 7pm Royce Hall
  • May 19: The Science of Pie (Chef Christina Tosi & Chef Zoe Nathan): 2pm Covel Commons Grand Horizon Room
General admission: $25 per event + $5.90 convenience charge if purchasing online
Event website: scienceandfood.org


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