Molecular Gastronomy: What is it?

The french are famous for their pastries, Americans for their burgers, Japanese for their ramen and the list goes on and on. The cuisines that have marked a country’s history still mark their present culinary industry. People come from far to taste those highlights in their respective home countries. But as each industry does, the culinary world is one that does not stop evolving. To either make it more efficient or improve it, advances such as the microwave meal and open kitchens are keepers. However, whatever is new in such a competitive industry, is next to intriguing also incredibly difficult to understand sometimes.

One of these new and recent breakthroughs is molecular gastronomy. Molecular gastronomy is a combination of words that people either don’t know, or immediately makes them think of expensive, inventive food. A world which opens the gastronomical arena up to an endless possibility of combinations and explorations. While some parts of this industry are becoming more common, and even available to households, such as nitrogen freezing foods, most areas are left like the universe, vast and undiscovered. This may be the reason that following the invention of this branch, people have been reluctant to include it into normal culinary practice, straying too far from the center and losing the traditional touch. But to understand this, understanding the origin of molecular gastronomy is vital.

To understand how molecular gastronomy came to be and why the culinary world is so intrigued by it, understanding its origin and use is vital. Molecular gastronomy is denoted by the encyclopedia britannica as a scientific discipline. As the name suggests the study of molecular reaction in food and cooking is the main interest of this area of study. Originating in 1988, the initial interest in the chemical and physical changes in food came as a development of the initial nutritional studies. Whereas people were first interested in purely the components of carrots, meats, fish etc., no one bothered to look into the cooking process itself. So why is this important to take note of? The study of the chemical and physical changes in cooking has lead us to understand (among many other things) why egg whites become firm when they are whipped long enough, creating a delicious white substance we call merengue.

Without the knowledge that we possess because of molecular gastronomy many dishes that we have come to love would be a mystery and probably not as well developed as they are today. One important thing to note is the difference between the creation of new dishes and molecular gastronomy in itself to be able to understand the use of the discipline. Just simply adding new ingredients together in different ways with different cooking techniques does not allow a dish to fall under the umbrella of molecular gastronomy. Understanding the manner in which food reacts to something and altering that to create something new or improve the process itself does. This distinction is important to also be able to dissect the controversy following this subject.

Chefs such as the Adria brothers from elBulli have often been slammed for straying too far away from the traditional concepts of food. People like things to stay the same. Under the motto “If something works why fix it?” a lot of critics have come out to say that they think that molecular gastronomy alters the food so much, it turns into a more chemical process than food.

What people, and especially these critics, fail to see however is that molecular gastronomy is all around us. If it wasn’t for the study of foods and their changing properties, bread would still be a boring and flavourless piece of carbohydrates that we had to eat every morning. The absence of an understanding in the general public that words such as “glucose” simply mean a different type of sugar rather than a scary harmful chemical used to alter a food, is creating a stigma against innovation and creation. Chefs in world class restaurants are seeing the worlds of science and gastronomy merging and people dismissing it without a second thought. Ferran Adria states it nicely: “If we keep seeing science and cooking as two Martians coming at each other with test tubes, we all lose, we have to normalise the relationship between them.”

Thinking about molecular gastronomy, some of the common examples would be cocktails in ice spheres, spaghetti made from vegetables, and instant ice creams. Of course, there are thousands of different examples, but these are the foods that molecular gastronomy skills are most commonly used to. Surprisingly, these examples have something in common. All of them are not originally from the Asian kitchen. This is understandable as molecular gastronomy was first originated in the western part of the world. However, this does not mean that the Asian chefs are falling behind.

In the East, the most famous chef in molecular gastronomy field is Alvin Leung, a Hong Kong chef who learned at Adria’s El Bulli. Returning to the East after graduating to begin his career in food, he presented his take on molecular gastronomy when he opened Bo Innovation, a restaurant that serves what Leung coined as ‘X-treme Chinese cuisine’ based on contemporary execution of Chinese, and even local Hong Kong dishes. The most impressive point here is that he did not simply carried western type of molecular gastronomy to Asia. He actually tried to apply the molecular gastronomical skills into Chinese food- such as organic Long Jiang chicken with wooden fungus and sand ginger, and Bo Baba, which is a Cantonese dessert comprising a conventional bread center, filled with Chinese orange cream and finished with sweet potato ice cream and chestnut puree on the side.

While Bo Innovation focuses more on traditional showcase of molecular gastronomy, now Hong Kong is trending more restaurants that serve molecular gastronomy, and one of these is Three Dice Kitchen. Three Dice Kitchen puts more effort to allure younger people of Hong Kong through offering the entire course at lower price, and highlighting the desserts it serves at the end of the course. Not only Three Dice Kitchen, but also many of the restaurants are using similar tactics in order to spread molecular gastronomy in Hong Kong.

“I don’t think we are more adventurous in food today. We just have more varieties to choose from. It’s a matter of choice, the abundance of it to be exact.” As Leung says, the chefs are now trying to expand the varieties for the public to choose from. They never force the public to try their new menus by advertisements. The choice is still left on the eaters’ hands. Now, the variety is still expanding, and it is the eaters’ choice to be adventurous and try something new, or be safe by sticking to common food.


Reporting from Silke Mulder & Amy Hwang