Readers of this blog will recall my interview with Chef Anjana Shanker, and her work on the team of Nathan Myhrvold’s “Modernist Cuisine”. Following the release of “Modernist Cuisine”, Myhrvold and his team went on to work on “Modernist Cuisine at Home”, which aims to bring some of the marvels of Modernist Cuisine techniques to the home kitchen. It was released in October 2012 and recently won the IACP award in the “Food and Beverage Reference/Technical” category.
In March this year, we were fortunate to be invited by Anjana to a “Family and Friends” open house event at Intellectual Ventures Lab, the research facility that houses Modernist Cuisine’s “Cooking Lab”.
A Tour of Intellectual Ventures Lab
Driving in to Seattle, it’s hard to miss the Space Needle, the futuristic tower built for the 1962 World’s Fair and the most recognizable symbol of the city ever since. Today, in nearby Bellevue, home to Intellectual Ventures Lab, you might drive right by the discreet building which houses this hub of scientific research without realizing it!
(Picture courtesy Modernist Cuisine)
Intellectual Ventures Lab consists of several scientific laboratories, housed in a large warehouse building. On their website, you’ll learn that these include “dedicated photonics, nanotechnology, biology, culinary and chemistry labs as well as a state-of-the-art machine shop” and also, a “mosquito insectary”.
That’s right, a mosquito insectary! (But more about that later).
Vancouver is a city of fitness buffs.
Come rain (as it does) or shine (sometimes), or snow (plenty on the ski slopes, and just enough on the streets to make the city’s inexperienced drivers the laughing stock of the rest of the country) you’ll find people out and about. Running, cycling, rollerblading, kayaking, skiing, hiking – and the all weather favourite – “hitting the gym”- a term I have yet to wrap my sweaty towel around!
Where a devotion to fitness and an active lifestyle are, can the health food juggernaut be far behind? Specialist stores abound, bringing you every conceivable combination of the latest wonder foods, energy drinks, protein bars and supplements, and more vitamins than there are letters of the alphabet.
Being a moderately lazy sort, and more inclined to get my nourishment from a well balanced meal, I don’t usually pay too much attention to all of this. One thing, though, that did catch my eye when I first came across it many years ago, was something called “trail mix”. There are versions of it sold everywhere, from supermarket check-out counters, to gas stations, to airport newsagents.
Canadian author Naomi Duguid introduces herself on her website as being “curious about the world, an insatiable asker of questions…writer, photographer, storyteller, traveller“. Well, it takes a special gift to be able to meld those qualities and talents in the way she does, unfailingly engaging readers time and again.
Like so many readers (and cooks) around the world, I’ve been travelling vicariously with Naomi for many years now, going back to the day I came upon “Flatbreads and Flavors: A Baker’s Atlas” in a Vancouver bookstore. (That was the first of her six award-winning cookbooks*, co-authored with Jeffery Alford). And ever since, I’ve been straggling along in the wake of her passage through countries as far flung and unfamiliar as Senegal, Azerbaijan and Mongolia, and some as near and familiar as India!
Through a medley of recipes, beautiful photographs, and evocative vignettes of places and peoples, Naomi lets you see and share more than just the food and foodways of those she meets on her travels. Her books read like the diaries of someone in love with the world. And that passion is infectious!
So, naturally, I was thrilled to meet Naomi in person when she visited Vancouver last November, on a book tour for her newest work, “Burma: Rivers of Flavor”.
Spring cleaning my kitchen stores, and the evidence lies before me – I am besotted with chillis. Aleppo, Byadgi, Cayenne, Dundicut, Kashmiri, Naga, Turkish, Hungarian, Spanish, they come tumbling out. And I haven’t even got to the Mexican ones yet!
Each variety has a distinct place in the cuisine of distant and not so distant lands. Of all the foods that travelled from the New World in the Columbian Exchange, there can be little doubt that chillis dramatically changed the way we eat. Today, it’s hard to imagine a time without the rich spectrum of chilli cultivars that have worked their way into virtually every culinary nook and corner of the world.
With that world of chillis at my tingling fingertips, there’s one variety that holds a special place in my heart, and that’s the little Kanthari, a cultivar of Capsicum frutescens that’s commonly grown in Kerala and Coorg. In the Kodava language, it’s known as parangi malu*.
There are always little shrubs to be found growing in the kitchen garden, or wild in the countryside, springing up from seeds deposited by a satisfied bird. It’s also one of the small, pungent varieties referred to as “birds eye” because of their shape, but I like to think it’s a reference to how much the birds seem to like them. And birds really love those chillis – if you want any, you”ll have to fight for them!
It’s a long way from Colombia to British Columbia, and that’s how far the little tubs of cape gooseberries I bought recently have travelled to the local supermarket shelves.
Native to South America, Physalis peruviana has travelled much further afield, over the centuries, acquiring new names and admirers along the way. A stopover on the Cape of Good Hope, in South Africa, is apparently responsible for their commonly being referred to as “cape” gooseberries. Whatever route they took to make their way into Coorg, where they were christened goomatté pann in the Kodava language, these luscious berries have played a starring role in many a childhood adventure.
Just ask someone who grew up in Coorg. Chances are, their face will light up at the mention of goomatté, and you will be treated to rapturous accounts of how eagerly they sought out these golden treasures as children. In time-honoured fashion, the best finds were to be made when loitering on the way to or from school. Berry hunters had to be alert to competitors – from fellow “bench mates” at school, to beady eyed birds. They would map the location and fruit-worthiness of the rambling shrubs, and keep an eye out for signs that someone else might be checking on them too.