A Flavor Exploration Kit

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There are culturally common activities like wine and cheese tastings that explore variations of a particular theme. There are also flavor tripping parties specifically for trying out the taste bud altering miracle fruit. And there are molecular gastronomy and modernist cuisine that are intended challenge your expectations of texture and flavor. In the spirit of these kinds of experiences, we came up with a wide-ranging set of interesting (and sometimes challenging) items that can be shipped through the mail and shared between internet friends.

The goals of the project include isolating a few interesting flavors that are not normally tasted on their own, understanding a bit about the ways that shape and texture affect flavor, and play a bit with some of the available “mouth altering” spices and flavors.

Most of the items we included in our tasting kit are from Indian or asian grocery stores. For herbs and spices, getting them from a shop with high turnover will help in obtaining fresher spices that are more full of flavor. They’re also likely to be less expensive at places that expect larger quantities of spices to be used in foods (we’ve written about this before). Ethnic groceries are better at this than mainstream ones, and places with bulk bins can be just about the worst. A few items we shopped for online, and a couple came from our garden.

For tasting order, we opted to start with more subtle flavors and end with mouth-altering ones. Our general itinerary was divided into four parts: flavors & scents, shapes, adventures, and light.

Of special note: many people are sensitive to particular (and sometimes esoteric) food items. Be sure you have discussed food allergies with all participants before plying them with unknown ingredients. Decide if you want to try things before announcing what they are. Have water and neutral flavored crackers or bread for cleansing the palette between flavors as needed or desired.

One of the joys of life is introducing people to new flavors and textures that you love, whether they are from your own kitchen or your favorite restaurant. Every so often, that will backfire, when someone ends up not liking your beloved dish. But sometimes you’ll see that “eureka” moment when someone lights up from the new experience. Eating involves many kinds of sense perception, including smell, taste, texture, temperature, and sight.

 

Part one: Flavors & Scents

  • Fenugreek Leaf (Methi): fenugreek has an aroma reminiscent of maple syrup and is one of the magic ingredients in tandoori marinades. Crumbling dry herbs in your fingers will help release aromas.
Makrut (Kaffir) Lime Leaves

Makrut (Kaffir) Lime Leaves

  • Makrut (Kaffir) Lime Leaf: a crucial ingredient in many Thai curry pastes and soups. This double-lobed citrus leaf is available fresh at many asian groceries, and we’ve written about it before.
  • Curry Leaf: used in south Indian cuisine, such as the soups you find at dosa shops. We have a little curry tree, but leaves can be obtained fresh at Indian groceries.
  • Ajwain: spicy, somewhat reminiscent of thyme or oregano. Also from Indian cuisines and spice blends.
saffron

Saffron Threads

  • Saffron: always used in very small amounts due to its potency and expense. Almost never tasted alone.
  • Chat (Chaat) Masala: used primarily on Indian snack foods. Key spices include black salt, mango powder, cumin and asafoetida. Try it on some fresh fruit.
  • Black Salt: very sulfurous pink colored salt mined from the Himalayas.
  • Truffle Salt: an excellent way to experience the heady aroma of truffles. Try sprinkling it on vanilla ice cream.

 

Part two: Shapes

Sugar crystals

Sugar Crystals

Salt hopper crystals

Salt Hopper Crystals

 

  • Sugar Crystals: these large (~1/4 inch) sugar crystals are available at Indian and middle-eastern markets, sometimes labeled as “sugar cubes” despite their elegant shapes. They don’t seem as sweet as granulated sugar because of the low surface area to volume ratio.
  • Salt Flakes (hopper crystals): because of the huge surface area, these taste even saltier than granulated salt. Great for when you want to have lots of salt flavor and are sprinkling on a surface that will not dissolve the salt. Trader Joe’s is selling small containers with huge crystals. Alternately, Maldon Sea Salt Flakes are large enough to see the crystal structure.

    pepper threads

    Shredded Dried Red Pepper

  • Shredded Red Pepper: we came across these dried pepper threads at a Korean grocery store and have been garnishing our soups with them ever since. They’re preserved with salt and rehydrate to show the cross section from the center of the fruit to the skin.They’re beautiful and spicy, but not as spicy as red pepper powder because of the difference in surface area.

 

Part three: Adventures

sichuan pepper

Sichuan Peppercorns

citric acid granules

Citric Acid Granules

 

  • Citric Acid: we found large granules of this at an Indian market. One big granule is enough to make just about anyone pucker. This is the full-strength version of the powder that is used to make sour candies sour.
  • Sichuan Pepper (Prickly Ash, Wild Peppercorn): one of the components (hydroxy-alpha-sanshool) triggers an anesthetic reaction. After chewing on a couple of these husks, your tongue will go numb and tingly. It increases your ability to eat super spicy foods, and has been described to us as “a party in your mouth.” We’ve also seen very panicked faces of people who just wanted the sensation to stop. Some people don’t seem to be as sensitive to it, or perhaps didn’t get very active pieces, and they usually find the lemony flavor to be pleasant.
super soda gum

Super Soda Gum

miracle fruit tablets

Miracle Fruit Tables

 

  • Super Soda Gum: we discovered this great bubble gum through the Candy Japan subscription service and we now purchase it at our local Japanese grocery store. It has a powerful punch of fizzy powder inside, which makes your mouth foam up like crazy. It is awesome good fun, and it seemed to help the sichuan pepper effect to subside. Even after the excitement from the foam settles down, it is really good quality gum.
  • Miracle Fruit Tablets: we got these tablets from Amazon. They’re a little bit expensive, but the miraculin binds to sweet receptors on the tongue, making sour foods seem sweet. The berries are also available, but are more expensive, and harder to get shipped.
  • Citric Acid (again): after dosing with the miracle fruit, citric acid tastes like candy. Be careful, or you’ll inadvertently eat a lot of highly acidic food because it is so fun. Try other sour foods like lemon, lime, grapefruit, vinegar, and tamarind.

Part four: Light

  • Wint-O-Green Lifesavers: sugar crystals are a triboluminescent material, meaning that when you crush them, they emit light. However, they emit ultraviolet light, and so we don’t normally get to see the effect. Wintergreen oil fluoresces blue, so eating wintergreen flavored candies in the dark in front of a mirror or with friends will let you see it. Go into a very dark room. Wait until your eyes are accustomed to the dark. Bite the mints with your teeth to crack them to see the glow.

Other possibilities

  • Asafoetida (Hing): a very powerful garlic and onion substitute from Indian cuisine.
  • Seaweed: for someone who hasn’t been exposed to the flavor of dried seaweed, it can be a shock.
  • Dried Sumac: a sour fruit used in the spice blend za’atar along with sesame seeds and dried herbs.
  • Tamarind: a sour fruit that is less well known in mainstream American cuisine, but can be found in many familiar sauces (even some Worcestershire sauces). Commonly available as a paste or as pulp.
  • Other less common fruits, such as dragon fruit, soursop, jackfruit, and durian.
  • Fresh vs. freeze dried vs. canned textures and flavors.
  • From our group came the suggestion to create a flavor symphony, walking through various movements of flavor rather than isolating each one. It could be interesting to add more familiar herbs like mint, thyme, and rosemary to the mix.

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An exploration like this is fairly simple to lead when everyone is in the same place, but can also be done remotely. We packaged up our ingredients into little bags and tucked them into plastic organizer boxes (commonly available from the dollar store) to conceal the contents until the right moment.

The list above is strongly influenced by our personal experiences and cooking preferences. Depending on your background, things we find exotic may seem perfectly normal. It is interesting to see which ingredients stir up memories from the participants, and which are new to them as well. If you come up with other ideas, we’d love to hear about them!

A Fragment of Muonionalusta

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This little chunk of crystalline metal is a tiny slice of a meteorite — a rock that fell from the sky. When one says that, the next natural question is, “how do you know it’s a meteorite?” (We will get to that.) But what is really staggering is not just that we know, but how much we know about it and its history. And what a long history it is.

This specimen is a 68 gram sample cut from a fragment of the Muonionalusta meteorite.  According to our best current understanding, the parent body that Muonionalusta came from was one of the earliest bodies to take shape during the formation of our solar system. It began as a protoplanet (or planetisimal) that accreted within the protoplanetary disk that would eventually become our solar system. It accreted over the course of roughly the first million years after the beginning or our solar system. (That is to say, during the first million years after the very first solids condensed from the protoplanetary disk.) The parent body had an iron-nickel “planetary” core, 50–110 km in radius, that was eventually exposed by collisions that stripped away most of its insulating mantle. It cooled very slowly over the next 1-2 million years. It is estimated (with startling precision) by Pb-Pb dating that the body crossed below a temperature of ~300 °C at 4565.3 ± 0.1 million years ago, just 2-3 million years after the solar system began to form. For the next four billion years, it led a largely unremarkable existence as an asteroid (minor planet) until it broke apart (possibly due to a major collision) about 400 million years ago. Then, one fine day roughly one million years ago, a large fragment entered the earth’s atmosphere, breaking into hundreds (perhaps, thousands) of smaller fragments that rained down in a shower of fire upon what is now northern Sweden and Finland. Four ice ages transported the surviving meteorite fragments across the Swedish tundra, until their first discovery (and naming after the nearby Muonio river) in 1906.

But, how do we know all of that?
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From the mailbag: Fun soldering

Eric wrote in to say:

It was fun. It was fun to build the Larson Scanner. It was fun because I successfully put it together and it worked as designed. It was so fun I’ll do this again!

In the mid 70′s I attempted to construct a Radio Shack short wave radio kit with a soldering gun. That’s right, I used a soldering gun. Believe it or not, it worked … as a battery heater upper.

Thank you for the helpful instructions and well designed kit. It’s nice to know that 40 years after my last kit, I can drop the battery killer nickname.

The Power of the Digi-Comp II

Last fall, we built an oversized Digi-Comp II for MIT, which we’ll be posting about in the near future. Today, MIT computer science professor Scott Aaronson published a short “paperlet” about the computational capabilities of the Digi-Comp II on his blog, Shtetl-Optimized:

…it’s amazing that such a simple contraption of balls and toggles could already take us over the threshold of universality.  Universality would immediately explain why the Digi-Comp is capable of multiplication, division, sorting, and so on.  If, on the other hand, we don’t have universality, that too is extremely interesting—for we’d then face the challenge of explaining how the Digi-Comp can do so many things without being universal.

Pen tests for drawing machines

Jenslabs has published a thoughtful and thorough evaluation of a number of currently available rollerball and gel pens. He tested them using his Circlon machine.

One thing that anyone who as ever built a drawing machine realizes, is that to get quality results you need a quality pen. There are millions of pens out there, but after a little trial and error I realized that rollerball pens or pens with gel ink are the best pen types for my machine. Both rollerball and gel ink pens use a water based ink that is less viscous then the oil based ink used in ballpoint pens. The Circlon machine sometimes move very fast, so the pen has to be able to release enough ink to make solid lines even at high speed.

This is an excellent resource for folks with other drawing machines, such as Egg-Bots and WaterColorBots. We’ve linked to it from our page about choosing pens for the Egg-Bot as well.

Electro-Kistka: Alternate In-Place Egg Dyeing Technique

After seeing our recent post on dyeing in eggs in place with the Eggbot, Ragnar posted instructions in the forums for an alternative egg dyeing technique.

It involves pre-installing a plastic dyeing bag at the time of positioning the egg in the Eggbot. Full instructions (with more photos) are in the forum post. Thank you for demonstrating this technique, Ragnar!

Electro-Kistka: Dyeing an Egg in Place?

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In our annoucement article about the EggBot Electro-Kistka — the hot wax dispenser for the EggBot — we noted that it can be challenging to reposition an egg after taking it out to dye the egg between wax layers.

As an alternative suggestion, reader Dan commented:

Could you leave the egg in the EggBot and paint on the first layer(s) of dye with a brush? Then dip the egg for the last layer to get the ends covered.

Well, let’s try and see how it turns out!

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Ingenious 1970′s Technology: The Flip Flash

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Once upon a time, cameras did not come with LED illumination or even xenon strobes, but rather with a socket that could fire a one-time-use flashbulb.

An advance from this was the “flip flash” cartridge which held 8 or 10 flash bulbs, ganged up so that you could take one photo after another, without pausing to swap bulbs. Each time that you took a picture (exposing actual film!), the next flashbulb in the cartridge would fire.

But you might ask a tricky question here: How does it know which bulb to fire next?

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