The story appears on

Page A12

March 17, 2012

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature

The Curious Cook tells what's cooking

WHILE many people have enjoyed the famous French dessert molten chocolate cake, a rich cake with a pocket of hot chocolate sauce inside, the chocolate sauce used to be on the top of the cake or on the plate, according to Harold McGee, an American author who writes about the chemistry, technique and history of food and cooking.

"This is a very classic example in the history of nouvelle cuisine that started in the early 18th century. The cake is the cake, and the sauce would never be inside. But nouvelle cuisine changed the way, and the new combination showed up," says McGee who has written two major books on kitchen science. He was in town for the Shanghai International Literary Festival.

Actually the US-based chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten claims to have invented molten chocolate cake in New York City in 1987 and has said it emerged as a brilliant accident of undercooking, which diners loved. The rest is history.

McGee writes a regular column for The New York Times, "The Curious Cook," which often debunks cooking myths and conventional kitchen wisdom.

McGee says nouvelle cuisine exists in all dishes, from salad, meat to desserts; from the techniques to presentation. It's local, of the moment and influential among chefs; it brings many surprising changes.

"People are interested in new things and variety, and scientists help with innovation. Every year there is nouvelle cuisine, because every year tastes change and every day there are new stews," the author says. "As a cook, you have to keep up with the changes and come up with new dishes. Know your ingredients, materials and elements, and understand the methods of transformation."

McGee's first book "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Love of the Kitchen" was first published in 1984, followed by a revised second edition in 2004. It provides a reference to the scientific understanding and preparation of food.

The book has been described as "the Rosetta Stone of the culinary world" and a must for every cook who possesses an inquiring mind.

McGee's work focus on the ingredients, the history of foodstuffs and cookery, the molecular characteristics of food flavor, together with a few historical recipes.

For example, for pasta, McGee recommends using plenty of water (not hard water with high mineral content), adding salt and a little oil.

In the past 10 years science and technology have expanded and increased what chefs can do, but the essential energy is the heat (temperature), says the author. "Food texture depends on temperature. You can cook an egg at different temperatures, and every degree makes difference in texture.

"My favorite meat is lamb. For me the perfect temperature is 56 degrees but for others it might be 54-55. Speaking of equipment, the pressure cooker allows you to cook at higher than boiling temperature. This makes some ordinary ingredients taste different and delicious," he continues to explain.

The 21st-century trends of nouvelle cuisine are more specific and personalized, McGee says.

"Maybe you cannot tell what you see when you look at a modern salad. It might bring interesting new ingredients and new combinations like beans. You have no clue about what you will eat," he says.

Another example is oyster surrounded by jelly. The oyster tastes just like an oyster, but jelly surrounding it tastes like champagne.

"That's what I expect. Sometimes I put something in my mouth, I know I tasted it before, but I cannot figure it out," he says.

Modern cooking is not about preparing a meal to satisfy and make people full, but more about performance and showing skills.

The chef is doing what diners have never experienced before and not even expected, coming close to art of the senses of taste and smell.

"When tea is served in special cup - half hot and half cold, what will you feel when you drink them at the same time? Creative new dishes show the directions of modern cooking. It is a very interesting time in food," he says.

Asked about the increasingly popular phenomenon of celebrated chefs on TV food programs, McGee thinks it's good to raise the awareness of the profession of chef, of cooking, of interesting food and how foods are put together and how foods are cooked.

"But the down side is the way they are presented. People watch many of the shows but they do not understand anything about the food. They are seeing a competition, somebody beating somebody else. That is not interesting. It's the drama but not the cooking," he concludes.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend