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Monday, December 30, 2013

Favorite Food Experiences 2013

It's that time when we write of retrospectives, and 2013 was a pretty epic year when it came to food. I had the privilege of traveling to multiple countries, and getting to try some dishes for the first time, and distilling new insights about the experience and communication of science and food. Going over them, and narrowing them to a small select list of experiences that are the most notable of the year was difficult - but these are dishes or experiences that I wouldn't mind revisiting. Even though in some cases, I don't think they can be replicated.

The vegetable focused Oxheart is one of the most celebrated restaurants in Houston, and in 2013, I managed to go dine there. And the pretzel rolls from Karen Mann was the standout course of the evening. The most egregious thing about it was the fact that I couldn't buy a bag of these rolls to bring home for later. 
Chef Steve Marques (check out his new blog) made the move from CoalVines in Sugarland to Executive Chef of BRC in Houston, but while there I got to taste his house made ginger ale, paired with oysters. The flavors of that drink is memorable to this day, nearly a year later. This was an enlightening delightful nonalcoholic pairing menu, a lavish experience few other chefs try to follow. 
Many Southeast Asian cuisines treasure soured soups/stews. In the Dumaguete, the Philippines, you can purchase the tail and neck chunks of the whole roasted pig (the lechon), and ask them to make the tamarind soured soup singingang. The resulting dish, savory, intensely flavored, unctuous, rustic, is rarely seen in America. 
Among the ethnic Chinese communities of Malaysia and Singapore, the Lunar New Year is welcomed with yusheng (sometimes called yee sang) - a raw fish salad that is ritualistically assembled, and then members of the table toss it together. The higher the tossing, the better the luck - which, of course, can lead to quite a bit of the salad decorating the table outside the plate. But it's a festive time - the Greeks would understand. 
While in Singapore, I got to indulge in a bit of kuih lapis - a grilled layer cake. Traditionally, this is done by pouring thin layers of cake on top of the prior cooked layer, and then it cooked by broiling it to cook. In a sense, it is a cognate to the grilled cake in Germany called baumkuchen
In San Diego, I encountered brussels sprouts tempura at Okan. It was simple, delicious. And genius. 

On a visit to New York, I paid a visit to the hardworking crew at, and got to taste a sampling of Italian subs (and in Little Italy, where SeriousEats is headquartered, the versions are diverse and delicious). I hope to visit them again, it was a fun experience, an eye opening lunch where eating and tasting as indeed serious business. 

While in New York, I made it a point to sample the wares at Spot Dessert Bar,  the dessert centric restaurant under direction from Pichet Ong. These are fun, multicomponent desserts, sweet dishes that have been given care and thought. This matcha molten chocolate cake is a crowd favorite, not only due to the flavors but also because it has such a visual and textural impact. The amazing thing is that these desserts are rarely more than $8, in Manhattan no less. We need to do our desserts better, Houston. 
I hate to give out this little secret, but the German Pie at Casamia Bakery on Bellaire is one of the hidden pastry gems of Houston. Not too sweet, it's a balanced combination of crust, cream, and caramelization. 
A plethora of delicious things are to be found at the menu at Bong Ga in Houston, but this short rib stone pot was an eye opening surprise. Spicy with a kick to the back of the throat, it is cooked to be tender enough to be cut, but not so falling apart - which makes it feel substantial. Highly recommended. 
Blacksmith Coffee in Houston has been hosting monthly popup dinners, and this sweetbreads with okra dish from Chef Michael Gaspard may be the most creative take I've had on okra all year. 

We have at least two Taiwanese restaurants in Houston, and they are quite different from each other. One of them, Formosa Bistro, has the most curiously named "Fried Denitrified Pork Leg" on the menu. It's difficult to describe the experience, but it easily rivals and maybe exceeds Peking duck. The pork leg itself easily falls apart, but is crunchy and greaseless. I think it could've benefited from a good plum sauce but we finished it off and craved more. 
Unusual that on my list for 2013 I got to include another drink. Order mint lassi at Bombay Sweets, and it can come sweetened or salted, chilled, or room temperature. I didn't choose, I just couldn't predict which version would arrive. But the sweetened cold mint lassi was a beautiful foil for a hot Houston summer day. And a bhel poori.
At the African restaurant Finger Lickin' Bukateria, the catfish dish - simply called "Catfish" - turned out to a delicately cooked fish with a punchy sauce. The catfish was a perfect match for this preparation, and the strong flavors prompted yet another knob of fufu. 
I must call an honorable mention to this dish. My first visit to BRC Gastropub in Houston was before Steve Marques accepted the executive chef position. To call the food then forgettable would have been charitable. The descriptions on the menu were promising, but the execution was sloppy and lackluster. Put a new man at the helm, and the turnaround was immediate. I had the grilled asparagus in its original incarnation, and was struck by how it was reborn later. The smoke from the char married beautifully with the gribiche and bacon dressing. 

There you go. Food of the year crammed in a very large nutshell. Here's looking forward to 2014.

Monday, December 16, 2013


Recently, I was asked what my favorite vegetable was. With only a brief pause, I said, an onion. It's easy to overlook the humble onion as a vegetable. After all, it's so ubiquitous, but it seldom takes the starring role in a dish. And while we only think of the bulb in general when discussing onions, the whole plant is edible, from roots to flowers. When it comes to genetic modification, however, the onion presents a notable challenge. Its genome is enormous, at an estimated 15 gigabases. To put it in comparison, the human genome is a mere 3 gigabases - that is, the onion potentially contains five times the amount of genetic information that a human has.  Simplistically speaking. A little respect the next time you prepare your mirepoix then.

But the question that has hounded us for decades (this is from 1976) is set to song by Rowlf the Dog:

Why do onions make you cry?

Well, onions and other members of the Allium family are masters of sulfur metabolism. When an onion is cut, an enzyme allinase generates a set of sulfur containing compounds that produce the range of flavors in onions and garlic. That's why how an allium is cut prior to cooking affects its flavor in the end. Unfortunately, among these compounds is propanethial S-oxide, aka lachrymatory factor (I don't think either name is helpful for the lay person). Basically, it's tear gas. Some farmers restrict the uptake of sulfur to produce onions that make less lachrymatory factor, but this also reduces the flavor of the onion, too. Clever marketing will call these "sweeter" onions - I think that's up for debate.

The mystery though, is why don't other alliums, such as garlic or shallots, seem to make people cry even though they also use allinase. In 2002, scientists discovered that lachrymatory factor isn't some random by product, but is regulated by a specific enzyme (lachrymatory factor synthase or LFS), made by a specific gene. Which means that onions can be genetically modified to lose the LFS gene, and they will retain the full flavor profile, but will lack the tear gas producing capability. And in 2008, that's exactly what happened. Using a technique called RNA interference, the LFS gene in onion plants were "silenced" -voila! "tearless" onions. No doubt the New Zealand Institute for Crop and Food Research have been trying to get this to market, but hurdling the regulations for this genetically modified crop has been onerous (specially since this brings in a new technology, RNAi, into a field still debating transgenics, cisgenics, and targeted knockouts). It's been almost 6 years since the first publication - here's hoping we'll see tearless silenced onions soon.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

One basket

While Houston has a pretty good diversity of restaurants, they are often clustered around generalist profiles of "ethnic" cuisines. Just about every Vietnamese restaurant has pho, banh mi, and bo luc lac, every Japanese restaurant centers around sushi, every Tex Mex joint features the range of enchiladas, tacos, and burritos. What we rarely have are restaurateurs with confidence to put their entire line on a specialized dish. But, when one travels, this is often the case in other cultures. People go to specific purveyors for a particular dish because that focus lends a strong identity to that interpretation of the dish.

In Kuala Lumpur, large restaurants will specialize in just making bak kut teh, the "meat bone tea" soups, herbal, earthy, allegedly healthful and medicinal. I don't know about the latter, but it makes for a pretty distinct experience. 

In Mexico, they have posolerias, restaurants that just serve posole, the pork and hominy stew so favored by those recovering from a hangover. The Japanese are particularly embracing of specialization; I encountered restaurants that only served takoyaki (octopus fritter balls), and even one that just did buckwheat noodles (zarusoba). That fanatical specialization, however, resulted in some of the best noodles possible, with a product that didn't even have gluten to provide it structure.

That's why I think it takes guts to put the name of dish up on the name of the restaurant, to tell the world that, indeed, all the energy is focused on this one shot. If you mess up, there's no back up, no alternate. But it should be simpler on the production side - well, save for the requisite attention to detail. I'd say the relatively few exceptions to Houston's generalisms are some pho joints (notably the original Pho Binh trailer), barbecue joints, and burger joints.

Oh, and the hotpot joints. Though you kind of have to do the cooking yourself. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Bitter fruit. Or not.

It's gotten a bit chilly in the Gulf Coast, and that usually means a few things. Oyster season is here, and Gulf oysters are cheap, plentiful and delicious. It's also the thick of the Texas citrus season, and among the varieties grown here is the somewhat famous Rio Red grapefruit. What you may not know is that it is the product of using radiation to scramble the plant DNA.

This type of wholesale mutagenesis seems to sit fairly well amongst people who are concerned about genetically engineered (GE) plants. Although commercialized GE plants have specific traits with well known modifications, critics often cite the possibility of unintended consequences. Yet what could be more rife with unplanned results than random mutagenesis - yet these practices don't bear the scrutiny and political handwringing that GE plants do.

So, how would we go about developing grapefruit nowadays? A little lesson then in science transparency. The choice of selecting the Rio Red was to find a less bitter grapefruit. As it turns out, the main bitter component in citrus is a type of isoflavonone glycoside - I won't go into the long specific chemical names. Suffice it to say that there are two related compounds, very similar to each other. But one is bitter, the other is tasteless. And how bitter citrus is depends on the ratio of these two. Which is made by two different genes, creatively named Cm1,2RhaT (bitter) and Cs1,6RhaT (tasteless). And so, modifying just how these two genes are controlled or programmed determines the bitterness levels of most citrus. This is the power of leveraging the power of modern biochemistry and genomics. We can understand and modify to get a specific change with greater control than in the past.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Incentive for Poo

People have a tendency to jump on these diet fads whenever scientific evidence shows even preliminary glimmers in a certain direction. Once a social structure forms around this diet notion, the trend tends to persist even if the science goes contrary to the original conclusion. Be it gluten-free, low carb, paleo, ketogenic, calorie restrictive — most of these start with some kind of scientific or quasi-scientific notion, and is extrapolated to cult status. Getting to the start of such a movement would be a fascinating observation.

And maybe we are at the start of such a new fad. But I dare people to get started on this. In September, the team of Jeff Gordon in Washington University, headed by Vanessa Ridaura, published a tour de force article in Science. It's worth describing in some detail. First, a little background: if you aren't aware by now, a human body is really a constellation of microbial communities in addition to the human cells. There are about 10 bacterial cells for every human cell, and one of the more recent changes in our thinking is that some microbes aren't just friends, they are us. Alterations in the microbiota, by antibiotics or by other means, have drastic effects on human health. We are only recently starting to understand this, that it can affect everything from immunity to behavior.

In this paper, the group located some obesity discordant identical twins. That means finding twins who are genetically identical, but one is thin, and the other is, well, plump, and collected poop from both of them. Then they seeded the gut bacteria - ok, they fed the poop to genetically inbred mice that had been cleared of endogenous bacteria. Now they have incubators of the microbiota from the humans. The mice were then both fed the same diet - low fat, high fiber - guess what? Mice seeded with thin poop stayed thin, plump poop, got increased adiposity (that's scientifically accurate term for "got fatter").

Figure from the paper illustrating the experiment

This buys into this idea that the bacteria lining the gut is the gateway of nutrients into the body. It's the population that determines what eventually makes it into the system. It also says that obesity is potentially communicable. Or is it? The investigators then co-housed the mice. If obesity is transmissible, then if the mice are co-housed, the mice seeded with "plump poop" can transmit the bacteria to the mice seeded with "thin poop", and then everyone gets fat and happy.

The exact opposite happened. Co-housing prevented mice seeded with "plump poop" from getting fat. Seems that it's thin-ness that is communicable, and that it can in fact prevent obesity. The paper goes into dramatic detail analyzing the specific biochemical pathways that are different between the two microbiological populations, pinpointing the subpopulation of bacterial species that may be the biggest contributors, and even modeling the biochemistry underlying the potential differences in digestion. But I doubt if most people will try to understand it to that detail. This is sufficient preliminary information to make "thin people poop" the next crazy diet fad. 

So much for the scary aspects of eating shit

Disclaimer: this is very preliminary work - this is to illustrate how basic science works, and to highlight an exciting development that has fundamental implications for our understanding of human physiology. This is not an endorsement to go around eating poop indiscriminately.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Chicken Perplexity

Matzoh ball pho from Eatsie Boys, Houston, TX
Antibiotics in food is one of the most emotionally charged topics when discussing modern agriculture (certainly words like "ticking time bomb" don't help in the fear department). But antibiotics and biology are a scientifically complicated issue. A quick review: what we colloquially call antibiotics comprise a range of compounds that are intended to interfere with microbial growth but minimally interfere with human (and related host animals) physiology. Many of these (and the matching resistance mechanisms) are indigenous to the competition among the different microbe species, and we humans have just appropriated a subset of these for our use. Nonetheless, most people seem to operate on the assumption that, by default, there are no antibiotics in the wild unless introduced by humans, that all antibiotics are functionally equivalent, and that resistance is "created" by exposure.

This misunderstanding can, of course, be aggravated by poor science reporting. The New York Times recently published an article (authored by Stephanie Strom) reporting the survey of the antibiotic resistant bacteria found supermarket, kosher, organic, or "raised without antibiotics (RWA) chicken in the New York City area. She summarized the results thusly:
Almost twice as many of the kosher chicken samples tested positive for antibiotic-resistant E. coli as did the those from conventionally raised birds. And even the samples from organically raised chickens and those raised without antibiotics did not significantly differ from the conventional ones.
The same conclusions are being echoed by various other outlets, from Salon to the Jewish Weekly (some writers focus on the fact that the lead author, Jack Millman, is 17 years old). But I found some problems upon reading of the paper published in F1000 Research (and responsibly linked). First is that the authors reported the resistant microbes as a percentage of isolates - they didn't report it as absolute values. Meaning that unless they had sampled equally among the different categories of chicken, this can be radically different. For example, if there were 100 conventionally raised birds sampled, and 10 kosher birds, but 5 were resistant in both samples, the kosher birds would come up as 50% while the conventional would be 5%. Reporting the total population number is important to interpretation.

But the second sentence will perplex most: after all, "organic" should include an exclusion of antibiotics, while RWA means that the birds could still be raised conventionally just without the use of commercial antibiotics. And yet, the resistance levels weren't significantly different from conventional - how can this be so?

The key could be how the samples were procured. The authors had gathered 213 chicken samples - in order to manage this large set of samples, they decided on a single bacterium per sample. This, alone, should raise alarm bells. But this is how they did it: they took a chicken leg from each sample, dropped in a sterile bag with MacConkey broth, and incubated it overnight. MacConkey broth is a growth medium for bacteria, but most bacteria are actually unculturable - that is, for more than 90% of bacterial species we don't even know how to grow them in controlled laboratory conditions. MacConkey broth is designed specifically to grow lactose fermenting bacteria - this is called a selection regimen. Only certain bacteria will be favored to grow in these conditions. Why? Because the authors wanted to focus on a well studied workhorse: E. coli. And I have a whole different article on why E. coli can be a confusing bug to study.

Chicken soup, from Pecking Order, Chicago, IL
That's not the only issue. The generation time for E. coli is about 20 minutes. That's how much time, on average, it takes for one cell to become two. Assuming a 10 hour overnight incubation, that's 30 generations. And from the resulting set of surviving descendants (do that math - but it's easily in the millions) they picked one cell for subsequent tests to see if they could be positively identified as E. coli. And if it passed that test, that's the one they tested for antibiotic resistance as representative for that chicken sample.

Imagine if you're comparing cities. If you took one person from any city in the world, at random, and presumed to judge the characteristics of the population of that city from this one sample, it wouldn't be valid. Now, instead of that one person, you decided to take a descendant from a selected number of residents many generations later. I find it hard to think that it would be representative of the original population.

This, I fear, is the weakest part of this study. The authors technically sampled less than one cell per sample and extrapolated their conclusions to the original. This is not a rigorous study design. But the authors didn't try to oversell their results - the journalists who reporting on this jumped to very broad conclusions, often bringing angst regarding the kosher bird process - I am not even going to discuss the fact that the authors disclosed that their classification system was intentionally skewed to report more antibiotic resistant bacteria than not. Bottom line: there's insufficient information in this study to conclude one way or the other.

I did learn that there's a practice of injecting some antibiotics in eggs prior to the chick hatching, although the paper implied that this is standard practice. In truth, this is "off label" use, meaning that it isn't an approved practice.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Fixing up labels

The electoral battle rages in Washington over I-522 - the proposed law requiring the labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms. My own objection to such a law is pretty evident, primarily because it is unscientific and unjust. What baffles me sometimes is how cavalier some people are with regards to food labeling. The "just label it" and similar campaigns make it seem like labeling is at once trivial and essential (the phrase "fighting labeling" is also often used as a strawman argument, as if opponents to the law are preventing people from voluntarily labeling the food). 

I have come to realize that the state of food (and by extension, supplement) labeling is in such a poor and confusing state that it's easy to trivialize it. The difference, of course, is that mandated labels carry the penalty and force of law, and should not be treated lightly. Take, for example, coconut water. Practically unheard of a few years ago, bottled and canned coconut water now has dedicated shelves in major grocery stores in the US. 

And a common label and tactic is to report coconut water as a "natural" sports drink, that it hydrates better than water. This, of course, is untrue: truth behind the coconut water craze. It isn't difficult to figure out that the main hydrating component for coconut water is, well, the water. The fact that it is mostly composed of water. 

That doesn't prevent folks from making a coconut water concentrate - where the main hydrating component is reduced - to chug quickly. I guarantee you that this is no way more hydrating than water. 

But, of course, we can take this to the ultimate level of ridiculousness.

Behold - Coconut water powder. Completely dehydrated coconut water - and yet it is labeled for "hydration on the go". 
If such labeling is casually present, no wonder people don't think the addition of a nonsensical label is  worth objecting to. Except in this case, it's about coercion. These manufacturers chose to add the nonsensical label. I-522 will compel and coerce food producers to add a nonsensical label even if they don't want to. People of Washington, please vote NO on I-522.

By the way, coconut water really comes from a hard to peel fruit like this, not a can.  May need a machete to cut open. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Getting over incidental coprophagy

Some common coprophagic organisms. One even named in an inadvertent pun. 
Christian Seger of Blue Heron Farms opened his TEDxHouston talk by summarizing Eric Schlosser's book, Fast Food Nation, in one sentence: "There's shit in the meat". The section, in context, actually reads like this:

The medical literature on the causes of food poisoning is full of euphemisms and dry scientific terms: coliform levels, aerobic plate counts, sorbitol, MacConkey agar, and so on. Behind them lies a simple explanation for why eating a hamburger can now make you seriously ill: There is shit in the meat.” 

While succeeding in terrifying Christian Seger, Schlosser demonstrates a remarkable disdain for science, not bothering to connect or understand the words. These aren't just dry unscientific terms - they are completely peripheral to his own disgust response.

Coliforms are bacteria that are short rods in shape. Their levels are used monitoring system to detect bacterial contamination. The coliform we are often interested in is E. coli, which both a human pathogen, friend, and neighbor - depending on the situation. It's also a facultative anaerobe - meaning it can grow with or without oxygen. Aerobic plate counts are way of finding out how many bacteria require oxygen to grow. Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol which is often used in many sugar-free candies and gums - but in the lab, the ability to ferment sorbitol is a key test in classifying the kind of bacteria is present. MacConkey agar is yet another test for classifying bacteria. If you notice - none of these build up logically to his thesis. All it is is the contamination properties of  the disgust response is evoked to imply that there's something dangerous about the food. In truth, there was probably at best a tiny bit of poo in the meat, detectible with the highly sensitive methods of modern microbiology - but in the big picture, insignificant. 

And it turns out that eating shit isn't necessarily so bad. For every human cell in a human body, there are 10 bacterial cells: the health and diversity of this microbial community is every bit central to the health of the human. In certain circumstances, a bacterium called Clostridium difficile (Cdiff in shorthand) can overwhelm the gut system, resulting in diarrhea, even death. Though Cdiff infections can be difficult to treat, one of the most effective is something euphemistically called "fecal transplantation". But that's mostly the ick factor talking - basically, it's just eating shit from a healthy individual to restore the balance in the sick patient's gut. There's a bit more to the preparation than that, but it's remarkably effective, and if you can get over the taboo, cheap as shit. 

It should really come as no surprise: coprophagy is fairly common in the animal kingdom. Heck, in all likelihood, children inherit the founding microbial populations from a bit of the poop from the mother. And it's all right. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Giving In to False Balance

In a speech at the Food Integrity Summit in Chicago, on Oct 15, Mark Lynas, former antiGMO activist now pro-science crusader, lays out his case for labeling of "GMOs (genetically modified organisms"in food. With eloquent certainty, he admits that there is no scientific basis for labeling, and that the ultimate intent of pro-labelling activists is the outright ban of genetic engineering. And that if such a ban could be enacted worldwide, it would literally hobble biotech scientists.

What is his point? Like Ramez Naam before him, he's convinced that arguing from science is a politically unwinnable position. The "Right to Know" campaign, he concedes, is too powerful a political demand to be countered by the facts. He subtly buys into the argument that indeed, food manufacturers are fighting against labeling (not distinguishing this from voluntary labeling), so they can

 "smuggle [their] core products into peoples’ shopping baskets so that they can only buy them either unknowingly or by mistake". 

Unlike Naam, who couched his argument in favor of pressuring manufacturers to adopt voluntary labeling, Lynas outlines a plan for federally mandated and controlled labels, designed explicitly as not a warning (how this is to be done is up for speculation), and ubiquitous to the point of labeling cheese made from animals fed with some proportion of GMO plants. This is supposed to head off the patchwork of state by state initiatives in "GMO" labeling. Out loud and proud for the GMOs - we can can out shout the protesters.

Lynas casually concedes that the food industry is somehow not being transparent (even though this is a straw man argument), and says - let's just move on. He doesn't consider who is actually going to bear the burden of this policy he is advocating. The design of the label, its content, testing and enforcement will be a significant cost given the desired ubiquity - and the implication is that this will be the standard cost of food production from here on out (unless, of course, one opts out of using "GMOs" - however that legal definition shifts going forward). This may seem trivial for big producers, but what of smaller food producers? Regulations already place a significant barrier to entry for aspiring food makers, the addition of passing labeling inspection - purely on a political whim - makes the process onerous.

In the face of a political fight where he sees the truth about to be lynched by the mob, Lynas opts to throw the first stone. To earn trust? It's hypocrisy.

Though he has clarified that he is against the I-522 mandating GMO labeling in Washington state, this move emboldens the antiscience fringe fueling the debate. Like many in the mainstream media, he's given fear mongering fabrication equal footing to established science. This is not a negotiation. This is not acceding to a public's "Right to Know". It's a witch hunt, and someone is being used as a sacrifice to placate a terrorized population.

I'll append an extension to Lynas' proposal. Assuming his mandated labeling law comes to pass, complying with it should come at no cost to food producers. The cost of monitoring, categorization, physical labeling, and independent enforcement must come from a new tax on food products that do not use GMO items (can be tied to the Organic Certification program), since those producers stand the most to gain from the system. Of course, that is ultimately the linchpin of this bogus argument about mandated labeling.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Chemical with corn

Tamale from Radical Eats, Houston, TX
The US has a federal holiday commemorating Christopher Columbus, the alleged "discoverer" of the new word (although I think the ever sharp Oatmeal skewers this historical figure quite effectively). For what it's worth, a consequence of the contact is the transfer of crops from the New World to the Old, spreading them far, and change cuisines worldwide. The tomato transformed Italian cooking, for example, but another effect is that nutrient dense crops quickly became the main source of nutrition in poorer parts of Europe. Modern readers with computers may find it hard to believe, but there was a time that people literally had nothing more than corn to eat. The quick growing and human adapted corn (maize) gave rise to dishes like polenta, solving potential starvation issues.

But along with the rise of this monophagous (single sourced) diet came the spread of a disease: pellagra. Patients stricken had skin lesions, dementia, and, given the medical care at the time, died soon after. Primitive epidemiology tracked the problem to primarily corn eating populations. Perhaps it was contamination or some kind of pathogen in the corn. Pellagra reached epidemic proportions in the heavily corn consuming poor people of the southern USA.

Roasted sweet corn in a cup (elotes) at Max's Wine Dive, Houston, TX
We now know that pellagra wasn't caused by pathogen, it's a micronutrient deficiency in the vitamin niacin. What was confounding at the time, however, was that mesoamerican people also lived on a primarily corn-based diet, and yet had practically no incidence of pellagra. The key, as it turns out, was nixtamalization. The process of soaking maize in slaked lime - calcium hydroxide - well, basically most any alkali will work - made the naicin bioavailable, and also released the amino acid precursor tryptophan. The resulting maize is the basis for hominy and masa -- and all derivative dishes thereof, from antojitos to tortilla chips.

So, if you find yourself worried that your food "contains chemicals", "chemically processed", or involved things that cannot be pronounced easily - consider the history of maize in the Western diet. While one of the most genetically modified crops in human history, the link to pellagra, as it turns out, was insufficient technology.

Friday, October 4, 2013

A touch of acid

Kilawin (a vinegar based ceviche) and grilled pork with calamansi. An excellent combination. 
You hear it quite often nowadays on those cooking competition shows. A judge eats a bit of a contestant's food, and pronounces "It could use more acid". Well, what exactly do they mean by that? In general, I think the judge just wants an additional sour note to the food - after all, that's what we taste as sour are acidic substances. But not all acids are equal.

Industrially, mineral acids are the norm - examples of these are sulfuric acid, or muriatic (hydrochloric) acid or nitric acids. These are strong acids, which is to say just a little bit of mineral acids can wreak havoc on naked metal (and yes, just about all metals are susceptible to acid attack - take note about your fancy knives), and scar exposed skin. But these are rarely (if ever) used in culinary applications.

What are found in foods, the endogenous acids that make them sour, are weaker organic acids. Used in a scientific context, organic has nothing to do with being pesticide-free or other scaremongering imagery, rather, organic compounds have carbon backbones, and almost all chemicals emanating or involved with life are organic in nature. Ironically, that means that most pesticides are organic in nature.

Maybe the simplest culinary acid is carbonic acid, formed by combining a molecule of carbon dioxide with a molecule of water. Carbonated water is already acidic by this reaction, although it tends to be unstable, and breaks down easily. Nonetheless, formation of carbonic acid is an important step in buffering of blood chemistry, and given how easily it is formed, is the key compound in making limestone caves.

A bit more stable is acetic acid, the key souring component of vinegar. It's formed by bacteria eating the alcohol formed by yeast in fermented juices like wine. Although more stable than carbonic acid, it is volatile, meaning that it will evaporate. So, how does a salt and vinegar chip taste sour without being soggy? More than likely, the manufacturer used a crystallizable acid: citric acid. As you can tell from the name, citric acids is the key souring compound in citrus fruits, although it can be found in other foods as well. Powdered citric acid crystals are readily available, and are a food safe method of cleaning off the white crust from hard water that accumulates in kettles and faucets. What balances out citric acid is tartaric acid, the souring notes in fruits like grapes and apples. In fact, the ingredient cream of tartar is basically solid tartaric acid. It also has a certain astringency that is characteristic of the fruity flavors.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Sweet and deadly

Kushi oysters, Uchi Houston
Another descriptor to be added to the list of words vague and virtuous - "single source". Or sometimes "single origin". You'll see it on things like chocolate or coffee or wine - items that are often the product of blends from various sources to maintain a consistent product. That's the case, for example, of milk - industrial milk is sourced from a number of farms and blended together. People who trumpet the superiority of "single source" items tend to ignore the fact that production quality and volume can vary dramatically over time and geography. True that blending mutes particularly outstanding specimens, but in the long run, it also dampens the volatility of the products, making them more predictable.

And sometimes, this can be lifesaving. Honey produced from some rhododendron flowers contain significant levels of gryanotoxin - a fact used in ancient Greek warfare (perhaps an early bioweapon?). Contrasting the "health halo", in fact, some single source honeys are downright poisonous, and we will be hard pressed to police which flowers the bees harvest from. In places like Turkey where rhododendrons grow, the potential for widespread gryanotoxin poisoning is stopped by blending, since the toxin becomes diluted by other honey sources.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Serious Eating

On a recent trip to New York City, I was privileged to be invited to lunch by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, one of my favorite online writers, the mastermind behind Serious Eats The Food Lab. And with that came an opportunity to see the behind the scenes activity at Serious Eats. And the term serious is only partly tongue in cheek.

Computing workstations are not unexpected of an operation that is a rapidly evolving online magazine. The writers of Serious Eats (pictured here is Max Falkowitz) are prolific and have prodigious writing goals.

But not often are these workstations positioned around a working kitchen. A beautifully appointed working kitchen of this size very rare to find in Manhattan no less. 
Lunch consisted of a comparison of Italian subs from all over lower Manhattan. These were procured by 3 different missions before congregating in the Serious Eats headquarters. 

Sandwiches were rapidly unwrapped and photographed in various iterations, before being put on handy cutting boards. Notice the small yellow sticky notes that serve to highlight the source of each particular sandwich.

We bolstered lunch with some pizzas. On the right is a potato with truffle honey pizza. It wasn't that good. 

Wash the hands...

The knives come out...

And now we eat. Everyone takes small slivers of each sandwich and pizza, tastes them, makes comments. The banter is at once intense and lighthearted - it is a lunch, after all, but a working lunch. Comments make for inspiration to writing. And just like that, lunch is over.
Yes, it's a dog friendly place to work.
I bade the crew a good by as the Kenji tackled the next project (I spotted a lobster).  Lunch cannot, after all, be too big or too long at a place where eating itself is the job.  
This was one of the most unique meals I had in New York City, which is saying a lot for the diversity of dining in that place. I thank the crew of Serious Eats for letting me intrude in their day, and letting me catch a brief glimpse of the fast paced operation of a professional food blog production joint.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Jigglin' gels

A special custom dessert by way of Chris Leung, Kata Robata, Houston, TX
Gels are sort of trendy the haute cuisine world, although most modern diners are no stranger to the colorful gelatin cups found in supermarket. Transparent, jiggly, gels seem like solidified liquid - but not frozen. What are gels anyway?

In cooking, the gold standard gel forming agent is gelatin, although gels can be made from a number of different compounds, from agar to gellan to alginate. In general, compounds that make gels tend to form long stringy molecules. Gelatin, for example, is derived from boiling animal bones (yes, it isn't vegan), which dissolves out collagen - the long stringy protein responsible for cartilage and making the matrix for bone to grow in. As long as the liquid is hot, the proteins stay dissolved - at a high enough concentration, this provides viscosity to the liquid, and a pleasant mouthfeel that is the hallmark of slow cooked stock. The long stringy nature of collagen is also why powdered gelatin needs to be "bloomed" in cold liquid first, it takes some time for water to penetrate the molecules. Incidentally, in chemistry parlance, this state is called the sol state, when the water surrounds the collagen molecules.

But as the liquid cools down, the collagen molecules start tangling with each other, forming a really fine 3-D meshwork - something like a molecular scale sponge. The little gaps in the mesh holds small bits of water, and now the situation is reversed: the water is surrounded by collagen molecules. This, then, is the gel state. In the case of gelatin, the two states are interchangeable depending on the temperature - at a high enough temperature, it's a sol, and at low temperatures, it's a gel. Other gels, like alginate, the tangling is catalyzed with calcium, and is not reversible. So, once an alginate gel is formed, it's not going back to the sol state even if heated.

Gelatin is highly desirable because it reverts to a sol state at body temperature, literally melting in the mouth to release flavor from the trapped liquid. Also, since it is made of protein, it is simply digested. But, being so digestible is also it's weakness - certain fruits like pineapple and papaya are rich with protein digesting enzymes (wrapping meat with papaya leaves is an old meat tenderizing technique), and they will destroy the gel-forming capability of gelatin. Fortunately, these enzymes can be inactivated by heat, so cooking the pineapple (or using canned pineapple) will permit its use in those jiggly fruit cups.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Munching on tree trunks

Malaysian sago starch cookies.
In a prior post, I described the relationship between simple sugars, and more complex carbohydrates, like starches and glycogen. To summarize, starches are basically by linking together the smaller sugar molecules. The different types of starches (mostly a mix of amylose and amylopectin) differ primarily on how the sugar molecules are arranged. Glycogen is pretty much the same idea, except it's what animals make.

However, simple sugars can also be hooked together into a form that can't easily be broken down. When organized in such a fashion, these complex carbohydrates fulfill a structural function: cellulose. Due to it's strong and indigestible nature, cellulose is the primary component of wood. So, in short, the basic molecule of glucose (aka - corn syrup) can be hooked together to make either paper or bread.

The main reason to make starches, from the point of view of the plant, is for energy storage. After all, starches need to first be degraded into simple sugars before they are further digested for energy. That's why our most common sources of starch tend to come from grains (wheat, rice, corn). The starch there is primarily energy stored for the seedling to use when it germinates. Conversely, we can't digest cellulose, so the plant parts that aren't seeds are rich in fiber (indigestible cellulose that still serves an important "regular" function), and aren't starchy. But there's always an exception to the rule.

The sago palm (Metroxylon sagu) is harvested primarily for the starch content stored in the pith of its trunk. Sago starch remains an important dietary carbohydrate in Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea, and may even predate rice as the dietary carbohydrate in China. Harvesting sago is a laborious process where the trunk has to be split, the inner pith is shredded, soaked in water, beaten to release the starch granules, and then dried. Sago starch has some optimal gelatinization properties between classic grain based starches and potato starch, and is remarkably free of protein - perhaps an important ingredient for those seeking gluten-free starches. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Having a beef with the beef

Were you expecting a stock picture of a burger? This is still scrap meat dish. 
I listen to the podcast The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe, a well produced talk show promoting science and critical thinking, featuring a panel of "professional skeptics". In this week's episode, they actually touched on a story that's been making the rounds of social media and news sites: the lab grown hamburger. Or, as the producers at Maastricht University call it, cultured beef - funded by a grant from Google's Sergey Brin. The website is pretty slick, by the way, including some nifty animation.

This was no small feat - well, monetarily. The small patties cost over a quarter of a million dollars to produce - but to what end?

I am disappointed that the Skeptics didn't even question the premise of tissue cultured beef. They rained accolades on this as a major scientific advance, buying into the talking points from the Maastricht PR group, speculating about a future of harvesting meat from dishes, free from the cruelty of having to slaughter and butcher animals, and protecting the environment since cows need large expanses of land. Moreover, they bought into the misdirection, spending time on the disgust issues of eating laboratory produced cells and the flavor, rather than thinking about how this meat got to be where it is.

First problem: the Skeptics actually used the term "peak meat" - that there's an impending shortage of meat due to increasing demand, echoing the talking point that cultured beef technology solves a food security problem. Meat is a dispensable part of the human diet, can come from multiple sources, and beef itself is a luxury meat. Most of the world does not consume beef regularly because of cost. It has a lower cultural impact that you would expect on a global scale - unless you're viewing it from a privileged First Worlder point of view. Moreover, hamburger itself is simply creative use of scraps from the premium pieces of bovine used in beef production. If one were to take the trouble to build scaffolds, with single cell resolution to produce meat, why make an amorphous patty? Why not build a steak unlike any made before? It's like using a 3D printer to make a haystack.

So, what advances in tissue culture production did they introduce? Technologically, they employed few novelties that advance what we already know about stem cell differentiation and tissue culture. Just maintaining the sterile conditions needed to produce the cells can be quite energy intensive, certainly impacting the environment more than a cow or two. And what did they feed the cells to grow them? There's the ugly small print: fetal bovine serum (FBS). To grow animal cells outside of an animal, we have to simulate the environment of being inside the animal. That means a complex mix of growth factors and nutrients - this is provided by the FBS, harvested from aborted fetuses of cows. The efficiency is far from ideal as well - it takes a lot of fetuses worth of serum to grow a single patty of "cultured beef". In a weird sense, we are killing cattle to feed the "cruelty free" cultured beef. Media coverage is quick to handwave this requirement away as some small technical glitch that will be solved eventually, replacing FBS with a sustainable, non animal destroying substitute.  This does not exist, and the quest to make a synthetic replacement for FBS has been going on for decades - and we are nowhere near an acceptable solution. So, no scientific advances made in cell culture production techniques either.

The way I see it, it's a giant publicity stunt. All the focus on taste is a distraction from the very ornate art project. It's no real triumph of science, but it has sucked up enormous amounts of scientific talent and attention. I am not sure if this qualifies as pseudoscience, but the trappings were sufficient to get it past even folks as jaded as the SGU. Face it, for the foreseeable future, the most cost effective way of making beef is with a cow. But we can make it very merciful meat.

Do we really want culturable meat? Why not start with animals that are already easily cultured with minimal complex media requirements? For example, the starfish or the flatworm Planaria easily regenerate themselves when damaged - because they can revert to stem cell states easily and redifferentiate into any tissues required. Can we genetically engineer them to taste and look like beef? Or pork? Or chicken? Then again, I don't see the animal rights activists fighting to protect the lives of planarian worms from cruelty.

Update: Maureen Ogle isn't too impressed either. Specially considering the history of trying to culture meat.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A quick lesson in evolution

Fennel gone wild.
Two topics that I track for the purposes of science-based cuisine are the issue of genetically modified crops (notably, the use of glyphosphate resistance genes) and the use of antibiotics in farm animals. In both cases, farmers use a reagent chemical to eliminate undesirable organisms (weeds or infectious bacteria) from the population of desired plants or animals. Whenever these technologies are described, the specter of resistance is also aptly invoked, which limits the useful lifetimes of these methods. The choice of words that the popular media uses, however, can be infuriatingly misleading in its oversimplification.

The most common mistake is to say that "bacteria become resistant". So, here is a quick lesson in evolutionary biology. The vernacular language tends to treat bacteria as an individual, but really, it's a population going through changes. And the basic thing to remember is: the resistance mechanism is already in the population. The treatment with antibiotics did not create resistant organisms - it simply selected for them to increase in population frequency.

But perhaps more exasperating is the frequent populist writing about "creating superweeds". Coined by antiGMO activists, superweed is a poorly defined term meant to bring up the specter of unkillable weeds. By definition, a weed is simply an undesired plant growing in an agricultural set up competing against a desired crop. The technique of engineering crops to be herbicide resistant opens up the method for using herbicides to kill off weeds - but, eventually, the resistance mechanisms will increase in frequency among surviving plants going on to the next generation. It's simply evolution in action. There's nothing super about it.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Fishier than the salmon

In the Houston Press blog, recently appointed food critic Kaitlin Steinberg posts an article called "Attack of the Frankenfish", which is, of course, about the potential (and long delayed) approval of the Aquabounty transgenic salmon to the US markets. The writing uses the leading epithet "frankenfish" twice, painting immediately in the reader's mind that these are some kind of science fiction monster, despite the conciliatory wording admitting that the fish are only different in their growth rate - they grow twice as fast as their unmodified kin.

After that, Ms. Steinberg starts citing the Center for Food Safety. Despite the seemingly authoritative name, the CFS is a political action group dedicated to the elimination of genetically engineered foods, regardless of facts. They have resorted to outright fabrication and falsehood in marketing.

The Center for Food Safety, under its façade of nonprofit watchdogging, has all the marks of a black-marketing campaign, run on behalf of organic and “natural” foods. Its advisory board is packed with organic-foods activists.
Sadly, Ms. Steinberg was suckered in by this shady group. Although she writes that there are "Many organizations like the Center for Food Safety " which have petitions against the Aquabounty salmon, she fails to cite or link definitively to any one of them. But if they are like the CFS, they shouldn't be trusted anyway.

The environmental impact should be no different than for any aquacultured fish (I'd be more concerned with tilapia). As for the issue that the salmon could contain higher amounts of antibiotics - I refer you to my earlier postings about antibiotics in agriculture - a complex issue that merits much more thought than a simple condemnation. Mentioning it in ominous handwaving is manipulating the emotional susceptibility of the reader - this is not backed by any actual science. Then again, that's what the CFS really does - it subverts the air of scientific authority to spread unfounded fear.

At the end of her posting, Ms. Steinberg falls into the usual rhythm of anti GMO fearmongering, cautioning people to look for "wild" salmon, to avoid this product - even though it hasn't even entered the market yet. Poor Kroger is the unfortunate collateral damage of this inadvertent smear campaign, unfortunately named simply for not committing to a business move that they cannot control.

I suggest that Ms. Steinberg rethink her role in being the tool of a manipulative unscrupulous media entity.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The science of sweet corn

The most commonly grown crop in America is no doubt corn, but that isn’t the variety most people are accustomed to. In fact, the majority of corn harvested in America isn’t fit for direct human consumption; what people usually think about, particularly in the summer, is sweet corn. Sweet corn itself has a storied and scientific history. 

You’ll recall that there’s a direct relationship between sugar and starch. Both are chemically carbohydrates, but starches are made by stitching sugar molecules into larger molecules - hence, sugars are often called simple carbohydrates, and starches are complex carbohydrates. Starches are primarily made by plants (the animal cognate is glycogen), and can have varying properties depending on the sugar composition and arrangement. But primarily, starches don’t taste much (hence, the term “starchy” isn’t a compliment when it comes to cooking). Sugars, on the other hand, is what we perceive as sweet, but make for poor storage as they are quickly degraded by microorganisms. Plants wanting to store carbohydrates for the long term enzymatically convert the sugars into starch. Sweet corn has a genetic alteration in their ability to complete the conversion of sugar to starch; it is slowed down dramatically. Thus, when harvested quickly and cooked to kill off the enzymes, the corn kernels taste sweet.

The problem with sweet corn was that the sugar to starch conversion didn’t stop completely - it was just slowed down. But not slow enough. Early sweet corn crops had very narrow harvest window, perhaps a day, before the flavor deteriorates. Hence, the notion that to get the best corn flavor, one must first set the pot to boil before going out to harvest it. A couple of additional gene variants were later discovered that increased the sugar content (hence the term “supersweet”), lengthened this harvest window, and softened the hull for eating purposes - but this also made for a more fragile product and more fastidious growing conditions.

Modern sweet corn crops now come from the various combinations of these genetic traits. Corn is a particularly complicated item, as each kernel in a cob can be a different combination of genetic traits, apart from the primary features of the plant itself.

So, as you much on those dewey cobs, or the smokey cups of elotes, remember that what we enjoy now is the cumulative work of genetic engineering and agricultural innovation. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Smokey Intermezzo

Summer is in full swing. Lots of people traveling, lazier days, hotter temps. Perhaps we'll take a break from the weightier topics and just gaze on pictures of smoked meat.

Tea smoked duck. Lao Sze Chuan, Chicago, IL

Brisket, Smoque BBQ, Chicago. Granted, it's a little weird to order Texas style BBQ while in Chicago, but this cut, unfortunately, needed the sauce (not the deckle side, dry). 

Needed to bring it back home. BBQ chicken and pulled pork, TGFR BBQ cook off, Houston, TX.