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Non-Trivial Pursuit - New approaches to Nordic deliciousness

Interview and self-experiences, Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen, Denmark
Le Laboratoire d’alimentation nordique à Copengague
Josh Evans

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Josh Evans is a Researcher with Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen. He graduated from Yale University in May 2012, where he studied literature, philosophy, and food systems, and worked with the Yale Sustainable Food Project for three years. While writing his Bachelor’s thesis on the coevolutionary issues of European legislation for Protected Designations of Origins of food products, he became intrigued by microbiota as key mediators between food, people, and the environment. He plans to work with the lab a while longer, then return to school for graduate studies in food microbiology. He also keeps a blog around food, travel, and learning, at hearthstrung.wordpress.com.

“Lab” interview and self-experiences

1Nordic Food Lab was founded in 2008 as a research and development lab with the purpose of exploring food in the Nordic region. Chef René Redzepi and gastronomic entrepreneur Claus Meyer, co-owners of the restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, realised this investigation could not be undertaken in the restaurant kitchen alone. What they needed was a space where chefs, scientists, and other researchers could come together to investigate raw materials, traditional processes, and modern techniques more deeply than the pressure of daily service would allow.

2Thus the lab was born, as a non-profit self-governing institution, and since then it has grown into an interdisciplinary facility for experimental and investigative research. All of our work is open-source, for the benefit of chefs, academics, industry, and the public alike. We collaborate actively on various local and international projects and are always keen to find new and creative ways of bringing our work into the public sphere.

3We have many goals at the lab – discovering new flavours and rediscovering old ones, expanding the category of the edible, and cultivating sustainable food systems among them – but our primary driving force is ultimately the pursuit of deliciousness. Our methodology is rooted in the chef’s approach to food: if it’s not delicious yet, experiment and play with it until something interesting happens.

4In this way we work somewhere in between chefs and academic researchers. We have the space to conduct in-depth investigations, but our pace is fast and iterative, more like the rapid-prototyping of a design studio or kitchen, than that of a traditional lab. Though we are not subject to the respective pressures of daily service or constant publishing, we work to develop new ideas, products, and techniques so that we can disseminate them regularly and widely.

5We have many interests and are experts in very little. We will never know as much about vegetables as our farmer or about microbes as a microbiologist, so we collaborate with these experts to bring their different knowledges together and facilitate their cross-pollination. This blending gives rise to many interesting results.

6One project we return to continually is our search for new types of acidity. While citrus fruits are the staples of sourness in warmer climates, they don’t grow as well here in the north, so we have turned to fermentation to provide us with these necessary sour flavours. Certain fruits and vegetables – like unripe strawberries, gooseberries, redcurrants, and rhubarb – all provide exceptional sourness in the Nordic region, but lactic, acetic, and symbiotic fermentations allow us to preserve this sourness throughout the year, beyond these delicious but ephemeral seasonal flavours. Vinegars provide an especially good method for acidulating all sorts of flavours: pine and rosehip have proven particularly successful, as have rhubarb, strawberry, and celery. The quince was so delicious that we acquired old balsamic barrels to age it further. Kombucha, a type of symbiotic fermentation involving yeasts and bacteria, produces a milder acidity and is good with sweeter substrates – one of our favourites starts with fresh carrot juice.

7The flavours we use are characteristically Nordic, but the processes and techniques we employ are often much broader. Vinegars are made traditionally in many areas of the world, and Kombucha originates from Central Asia. Exploring the food of this specific region does not preclude looking beyond it for inspiration. In fact, we find that some of our most successful discoveries are the result of translating impulses from abroad into the Nordic context.

8Our yellow pea miso, which we affectionally dub “peaso”, is a prime example. The Japanese have rich and varied fermentation traditions, so it makes perfect sense to look to them for cues. We took the basic method for making miso – mixing koji, rice inoculated with the mould Aspergillus oryzae, with cooked soybeans – and developed our own Nordic version, involving barley koji and yellow split peas. The result is a smooth, golden paste with an incredible umami taste, a slight fruity sweetness, and the unmistakeable depth of cooked pea flavour.

  • 1 O’Mahony, Michael and Ishii, Rie. “A comparison of English and Japanese taste languages: Taste desc (...)
  • 2 Mouritsen, Ole G et al. “Seaweeds for umami flavour in the New Nordic Cuisine”. Flavour Journal, 1: (...)

9Umami is a concept the Japanese understand well1 – indeed, they coined the word itself, which means “delicious essence” – and we find ourselves constantly referring back to their methods for accessing the savoury potential of umami-rich foods. This interest in umami led to our creation of a “pork-bushi” or butabushi, a porcine version of the beloved katsuobushi, a hard, dried, smoked, multiple-fermented bonito product that is shaved and simmered with kombu seaweed to make an intensely umami broth. The pork bushi and its interaction with seaweed also led us to collaborate with chemists and sensory scientists to publish a paper on the synergistic effects of glutamate and certain 5’-ribonucleotides in enhancing the perception of umami.2

  • 3 Mouritsen, Ole G. “Seaweeds for Flavour”. Flavour Journal Launch. 28 March 2012. 5 September 2012. (...)

10These results led us to explore other ways we could incorporate seaweeds into our work. As far as delicious, sustainable foods go, seaweeds are some of the most potent: they are rich in proteins, vitamins, and minerals3; they grow rapidly, in thousands of species all over the world; are easily cultivable with few inputs; and carry a diverse array of flavours, colours, textures, and other chemical properties. Seaweeds are already enjoyed in other cultures, most notably Japan, where they are prized for their unique gastronomic properties. The main obstacle to introducing them to the contemporary Nordic palate, it seems, is to present their unfamiliar flavours in a familiar way. We want to help the taster move beyond the image of briny seaweed rotting on a beach, to come to understand these ‘weeds’ more as sea ‘vegetables’, with all the freshness and aromatic richness of land produce. To achieve this, we infuse red dulse (Palmaria palmata) into a simple ice cream base. Rarely is umami experienced in tandem with sweetness, especially in the Western culinary tradition, so we thought an ice cream would serve as the perfect backdrop for the dulse’s soft notes of anise and tea.

11The distinction between ‘weeds’ and ‘vegetables’ is, of course, more evaluative than taxonomic. Yet some of the most surprising and unique flavours can be found in plants we consider inconvenient or downright insidious. Making ‘weeds’ into ‘herbs’ can be a simple but transformative process. All of a sudden the landscape, even the modern urban one, lights up with edible diversity. For instance, the empty lot just outside our lab is covered in sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis). We gather it by the bucketload, wash it, dry it to intensify the aroma, infuse it into milk and churn it into frozen sheep’s yoghurt. The herb contains high quantities of coumarin, the main aromatic compound in tonka bean; so we have found a subtropical flavour from a rare and expensive spice in the northern reaches of Europe in a common and otherwise humble herb. The same is true of woodruff, which we use with cooked cabbage for a simple and delicious staff meal. We need not go so far for the exotic when we can find it just outside our doorstep.

12The relationship between edibility and deliciousness extends far beyond just plants – it is bound up in our considerations of what is good to eat, and these implicit decisions have immense repercussions in the wider world, as modern agriculture and food production show. The conventional understanding is that something must be edible before it can be considered delicious. But that is only half the equation. At the lab, we are interested in investigating the other half: how something can come to be considered edible by first being experienced as delicious. This is our guiding paradigm for introducing (or reintroducing) certain foods into the Nordic culinary vocabulary, like wild plants, seaweeds, fermented foods, and insects.

  • 4 Durst, Patrick B et al. “Edible forest insects: humans bite back”. Proceedings of a workshop on Asi (...)
  • 5 van Huis et al. 2010
  • 6 Morgan, David E. “Chemical Sorcery for Sociality: Exocrine Secretions of Ants (Hymenoptera: Formici (...)

13Insects are already consumed in 70% of the world’s cultures, and for good reason – they have nutritional content comparable to that of larger animals4, with lower demands on resources like feed, water, and land5. They also produce a range of flavour compounds and are rich in gastronomic potential. The main barrier to being celebrated in the West is that they are not considered edible. Our strategy is to transform them to highlight their latent deliciousness to the Western palate. So far, some of our creations include a rich sauce fermented from grasshoppers, wax moth larvae, koji and salt, mayonnaise made with bee larvae and oil, and a granola that replaces the oil and sugar with bee larvae and honey. But the live ants are possibly the most remarkable – they produce formic acid as a defense mechanism, and when you eat them live they spray it in your mouth. Many ants taste sour for this reason, though they can have all sorts of flavours depending on the species and their region: lemon, coriander, licorice, lemongrass – all these aromatic compounds and more have been found in ants.6

14Of course, none of these experiments mean much unless we share them and collaborate with others to develop them further. We currently have many partnerships on the go: integrating the commercial production of fish sauce from erstwhile ‘waste’ into the business model for a new fish market opening next spring in central Copenhagen; brewing beer from novel ingredients with Mikkeller; gaining access to expert knowledge on microbial cultivation and analysis from White Labs and the FAS Center for Systems Biology at Harvard; continuing to expand our physical Herbarium and digital database of edible wild plants with the help of professional foragers and wild plant experts from England, Sweden, and Denmark; and an ongoing and rich collaborative relationship with Momofuku Lab in New York City. It is these partnerships that give our projects meaning beyond our own little houseboat in Copenhagen harbour, and we hope to develop only more new collaborative ventures with every passing month.

15Our work is ultimately an inquiry into how we eat and why, which we try to understand and envision through developing new flavours and processes from existing, often common, ingredients and techniques. We try, with everything we make, to expand our common understanding of the delicious and the edible. It is about cultivating an edible consciousness. If some person, when they see a wild plant, or seaweed, or some novel ferment or insect, experiences not disgust but appetite, then this is worthwhile work.

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Notes

1 O’Mahony, Michael and Ishii, Rie. “A comparison of English and Japanese taste languages: Taste descriptive methodology, codability and the umami taste”. British Journal of Psychology, 77: 161-174. Great Britain: The British Psychological Society, 1986.

2 Mouritsen, Ole G et al. “Seaweeds for umami flavour in the New Nordic Cuisine”. Flavour Journal, 1:4. 21 March 2012. 5 September 2012. < http://www.flavourjournal.com/content/1/1/4>.

3 Mouritsen, Ole G. “Seaweeds for Flavour”. Flavour Journal Launch. 28 March 2012. 5 September 2012. < http://www.slideshare.net/BioMedCentral/ole-g-flavour-launch>.

4 Durst, Patrick B et al. “Edible forest insects: humans bite back”. Proceedings of a workshop on Asia-Pacific resources and their potential for development. Chang Mai: Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, 19-21 February 2008.

DeFoliart 1991; Ramos-Elorduy 1997

5 van Huis et al. 2010

6 Morgan, David E. “Chemical Sorcery for Sociality: Exocrine Secretions of Ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae)”. Myrmecological News. 11: 79-90. Vienna: 2008.

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References

Electronic reference

Josh Evans, « Non-Trivial Pursuit - New approaches to Nordic deliciousness  », Anthropology of food [Online], S7 | 2012, Online since 10 January 2013, connection on 17 August 2017. URL : http://aof.revues.org/7262

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About the author

Josh Evans

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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