Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Neurogastronomical Isis and the "Mouthfeel" of Cassava

"Isis," Romera's signature vegetable dish (photo: New York magazine)

A few weeks ago a very talented and keenly observant poet friend visited me in Brazil and left behind his copy of New York magazine so I could catch up on a little stateside culture. Ever since some invisible eminence decided to start sending New York to my apartment in San Francisco free of charge last year, I'd become familiar with the weekly and now appreciate it as an easily digestible finger on the pulse of what's new in urban culture (though perhaps a finger is not that easy to digest; please excuse my indulgently grotesque figures). The most startling item in the magazine's fall food section was a short piece on neurologist-turned-chef Dr. Miguel Sánchez Romera, an Argentine who recently decided to close his Michelin-bespangled restaurant L'Esguard, located outside of Barcelona, thus ditching the avant-garde Spanish molecular gastronomy set for the grittier pastures of New York City, where he has opened a new fancypants restaurant, Romera.

Drawing on his expertise in neuroscience and haute cuisine, as well as his background in fine art, Romero has invented the term and practice of "neurogastronomy," a culinary blend of philosophy, art, and science that aims to transport the eater to sensory and affective heights of Proustian intensity. The restaurant's site explains it thus:

Neurogastronomy embodies a holistic approach to food by means of a thoughtful study of the organoleptic properties of each ingredient. The result is a natural cuisine driven by the importance of the neurosensory perceptions, the taste-memory and the emotions of food.

I hope I've saved some of you a few clicks by explaining that "organoleptic" means "acting on or involving the use of the sense organs." With his Renaissance-man immersion in multiple, distinct fields and his confident elucidations of the eclectic and ambiguous science of gastronomy, Romera strikes me as a 21st-century Brillat-Savarin, the French lawyer, politician, and aristocrat gourmand whose obsessive interest in food matters led him to write The Physiology of Taste (1825), a collection of essays on the art of choosing, cooking, and eating good food, including meditations on the definition of gastronomy, the role of the senses, the concept of “taste,” and gastronomically crucial matters such as the "Erratic Virtue of Truffles." The now-ubiquitous truism, “You are what you eat,” originates in Brillat-Savarin’s line, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Romera appears to have written two books, though his written work has yet to achieve the influence of a Brillat-Savarin, Alice Waters, or Harold McGee: La Cocina de los Sentidos (The Kitchen of the Senses, not yet translated into English), and La Neurogastronomia, which seems to be a special order from a Danish pharmaceutical company for its favorite neuroscientist customers, also in Spanish.

Without knowing more about Romera's food, and never having experienced it, I'm not sure what to make of his claim to activate "the taste-memory and the emotions of food," since our taste-memory and emotional associations are so particular to individual cultures and to each individual person. Being presented with a tiny carrot nestled on greens laid upon a tightly regulated field of vegetable squares may trigger aesthetically excited endorphins in some systems or panicked memories of childhood in a too-strict, too-clean household in others.

Regardless of claims to memory and emotion, however, the dishes at least look exquisite. Pictured above is one of Romera's signature creations, a vegetable tour-de-force entitled "Isis," after the Egyptian goddess of fertility, nature, and magic (also sister-wife to Osiris, lord of the underworld, and namesake of my mysterious black Wu Tang cat). This article further describes the earthy, edible palette:

The dish is comprised of 48 tiny dried squares of vegetables from beets to potato and spinach, served with even tinier micro-veggies - leeks, onions, cabbage, carrots.

The vegetables all get steam-cooked and stewed together, then cooked in a homemade vegetable broth, a simple yet at the same time complex preparation.

In reading about Romera, I noticed a curious detail that I've never before seen or heard of in a chef's cuisine, a tiny daub of three bright colors—green, yellow, and red—that seem to act as his artist's signature. It appears in the Isis platter as three mini vegetable bits placed at the top right edge of the plate "frame" (some perverse part of me enjoys referring to it as the "platter," like it's merely the rich cousin to the $12.99 seafood platter). 

I wasn't sure what to make of that seeming non sequitur until I saw that the "E" in the   R O M E R A   logo is made of three horizontal lines in precisely the same shades of green, yellow, red. After this, I began to notice the tri-color signature on every dish photographed.

Chef as egomaniac is nothing new, but I'm not sure I've ever heard of such an overtly Picasso move in the culinary world. Maybe one of WV's food-obsessed readers has?

pile o' cassava (photo source)

The second part of the article that made my eyes go wide was the description of one of the esteemed doctor's culinary inventions, a natural additive known as Micri, "an odorless, tasteless gel derived from cassava, which when used in cooking can replace fats and extend flavor without sacrificing mouthfeel." Hmm. I had to read that line a few times. How does one extend flavor without sacrificing mouthfeel? What exactly is "mouthfeel"? Texture? With taste? The emotional geography of our oral cavities? What are the additives that extend flavor but that crudely block out what must be something quite pleasant that we would prefer not to sacrifice in our enhanced food: mouthfeel? Was Mouthfeel part of the secret arsenal of the Vietcong, who won the war through fierce determination and a diet of cassava that kept them going in underground tunnels outside of Saigon for so long? Cassava, also known as manioc and very popular in Brazil as well, does have a certain gummy je ne sais quoi that distinguishes its root texture from plain old mealy potatoes. Could this slippery starchiness be the source of its superlative mouthfeel properties?

Despite the scientific- and not-very-holistic-sounding Micri, and its successor Cassavia, Romera differentiates his process from the Frankensteinian tinkerings of molecular gastronomy, saying "I don't have any technology. . . . A kitchen is made to work with one's hands. All of technological cuisine sacrifices something, which is the taste. And to solve this problem, you have to add chemical additivies." I couldn't track down in-depth Internet information on either of the doctor's own natural (hm, "natural"? not sure if that word alone still retains any meaning in our fallen age of food production) additives, but he assures the readers of New York that his Hippocratic oath prevents him from making anything that's "against nutrition." The site Food from Spain describes Cassavia as "a fat-free paste made from yucca root and, like magic, it can transmit any flavor and take on any texture." It is a merging of magic and science on the site of a chameleon root powerful enough to win wars and nourish populations; in short, a very weird vegetable tale.


Anonymous said...

Like magic! The same magic that makes tapioca powder coalesce into a tortilla-like cassava shell when heated in a frying pan over a steady flame? The hungry eyes of this tapioca eater have been wanting to know...

kale daikon said...

Yes, precisely. We are living in the golden-white Era of Manioc Mouthfeel.