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Wine & Dine
May 19, 2013

Of Atoms And Molecules

Text by Sonal Ved.

From the bottom of your pasta plate to the top of your cappuccino cup, edible soil and foam are making stylish waves on the culinary circuit. Sonal Ved breaks the bubble

We have all heard about the farm-to-table dining movement that translates into chefs serving diners farm-fresh produce. But what if I told you that these days along with fresh vegetables, guests are made to eat soil too?

Edible dirt, as it is called internationally, is a trend fast growing among select restaurants in the city. You will see it at Colaba-based Indigo as truffle dust sprinkled over tortellini, at Bandra’s Otto Infinito as olive soil served with salad, and even home caterers such as Eat Drink Design are indulging diners with desserts topped with chocolate soil.

It is dirt in its pure form, yet very much edible and in some cases delicious too. “Because in reality, it is not soil at all,” says Chef Kelvin Cheung, head chef from Ellipsis. According to Cheung, “Faux soil essentially stands for culinary representation of dirt. It is not soil in the real sense but something that is made to look like it to accentuate the earthiness of a dish.” Therefore like real mud, Cheung’s homemade chocolate, ocean, basa, citrus and vanilla soils are coarse, gritty and crumbly.

At his Colaba-based diner, he serves them in combination with other dense ingredients such as beetroot soil with carrots or malt soil with moist sponge cake to add textural contrasts to a preparation.

According to Nadia Lim, winner of Masterchef New Zealand, the texture of a dish is as important as its taste. She says, “If a dish has only soft notes, no matter how delicious the flavours are, they won’t hit the spot.” Keeping this thought in mind, Lim added white flakes made from crushed pavlova to round up a seven course dinner at the Taste of Mumbai festival. The clumps resembled sand from the Mexican shores and poetically contrasted with slices of grilled pineapple that formed the crux of this sumptuous-tasting dessert.

Engineered mud is also favoured by cookbook author and television anchor Chef Vicky Ratnani from Aurus. At his Juhu-based diner, he uses a blend of dehydrated onions, olives, dried mushrooms, rye bread and nuts to create a mud-like base for a salad of miniature greens. To serve, Ratnani thrusts the veggies in faux soil which gives the appetiser a vegetable garden-like appearance.

Apart from soil, he is also known to garnish his desserts with interlocked bubbles of fruit air known as edible foam. Foam is essentially flavoured liquid that is whisked at high speed until it begins to form poxy bubbles. “This froth is then perched on food to provide momentary flavour bursts and a mouth feel that is hard to achieve with conventional dips and sauces,” says Ratnani.

MOLECULAR LINEAGE
According to Neeraj Sharda, director of Eat Drink Design, “Edible soil and air are both derivates of molecular gastronomy.” Therefore they make use of benign chemicals such as dextro, lecithin and algein baths to alter the intrinsic characteristic of an ingredient – like turn solid into soil and liquid into air. Since most are naturally extracted from food sources, they are very much edible. At his Andheri-based culinary studio he make soils out of ingredients such as olive, balsamic vinegar and herbs and uses them to style plates of pastas, salads and various desserts.

As for sceptics, who’d rather stay put from chemical-laced foods, Chef Ratish Dabre from Colaba-based Pier has a solution. The chef from this one-month-old eatery uses healthy alternatives such as quinoa and crumbled ricotta cheese to create soil-like textures. “Since these have natural graininess, they deliver contrasting textures without addition of any external elements,” says Dabre. Similarly, to froth up his savoury cappuccino, he uses a stick blender instead of non-organic air generators or foam guns. Whether made naturally or using procedures of molecular gastronomy, the usage of edible air and soil, however stylish, is restricted to gourmet chefs as of now. But it remains to be seen if it will steadily take over the garnishing industry and give cheese sprinkles a run for its money.

MUSHROOM PAPPARDELLE WITH PARMESAN FOAM
Ingredients: Olive oil, 2 tbsp; Button mushroom (chopped), 1/3 cup; Portobello mushroom (chopped), 1/3 cup; Shitake mushroom (chopped), 1/3 cup; Shallot (chopped), 1 tbsp; Garlic, ½ tsp; Fresh herbs, one pinch; Parpadelle pasta (boiled), 1 packet; Arugula, 1 cup; Parmesan cheese for garnish; Salt and pepper as per taste.

Ingredients for foam: Parmesan rind, 3 cups; Milk, 3 cups; Salt as per taste.

Method: In a pan, heat olive oil and sauté the mushroom until golden brown. Add chopped onions and garlic and continue to cook. Add cooked pasta to it along with a few spoons of water (from cooked pasta) to create a sauce-like emulsion. Season it with salt and pepper and add parmesan cheese and arugula leaves to it. Continue to cook the dish until the arugula leaves wilt completely. To create foam, simmer parmesan rind along with milk until the cheese melts. Strain and blitz it with the help of a stick blender. Once the foam begins to form, lift it carefully with a spoon and perch it on the pasta. Serve hot.

(Recipe by Chef Kelvin Cheung from Ellipsis)

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