Soy sauce made with grasshoppers, “chocolate” produced using fermented peas, and an award-winning gin made using ants – these are some of the innovative foods created by The Nordic Food Lab.
A non-profit organisation based at the University of Copenhagen, and established in 2008 to investigate “food diversity and deliciousness”, the lab combines “scientific and humanistic approaches with culinary techniques from around the world to explore the edible potential of the Nordic region”.
James Clasper met Roberto Flore, head of culinary research and development, to talk about the interaction of science and gastronomy, biodiversity and the future of food.
What is the Nordic Food Lab?
The lab was founded in 2008 by (Noma co-founders) Rene Redzepi and Claus Meyer. They created it to explore the food potential that Scandinavia has. Until November 2014 the lab was based on a boat, in front of Noma. It started with one chef. Right now we have six full-time employees and around 12 to 15 interns every year, as well as students from the university. But we’ve kept our heritage. We’re still an open source organisation. We share everything we develop in the lab, even the scientific articles we produce.
Because it’s important to guarantee the circulation of information. Our main goal is to create food diversity and taste diversity, and to understand which ingredients are available mainly in Scandinavia, but we’re also opening this region to other parts of the world. And it’s important to be able to think about whether it’s possible to change our diet, starting by changing our attitude to how we interact with the food we eat.
What’s the best example of food the lab has explored?
The one that people probably talk about most is our work with insects. That’s probably the one that has attracted the most attention in terms of the press. Especially because people think insects are really exotic, but there are edible insects even in Scandinavia.
What are you working on now?
We’re working on a project related to fermentation and tempeh, Indonesian cake made with fermented soybeans. We have several areas of interest. One is in Indonesia, where we’re trying to promote tempeh as an engine for promoting biodiversity. In Indonesia there’s a huge problem with soy importation, because 70 percent of the soy that’s used for producing tofu and tempeh is imported, so there’s a huge loss of biodiversity. We’re trying to work on gastronomic innovation and apply it to local varieties of bean, to see if people perceive extra value in their local variety. So we’re hoping to improve local production and stimulate different local markets using gastronomic innovation.
In Europe, we’re using traditional tempeh fermentation with local varieties to promote the use of beans in a different way, to embrace people who aren’t interested in that ingredient, and to create a large range of flavour in our region. In other words, we’re trying to use gastronomic heritage from abroad and create a new heritage here, to create something that’s totally new.
To do that, we’ve started working with a specific bean from Sweden, a brown bean that’s one of the oldest varieties in Europe, and we’re also working with varieties of peas and grains. We’ve made a fermented bean cake using those varieties. It has this umami sweetness and is rich like liquorice, but it’s not liquorice. It’s interesting because even if the flavour isn’t familiar to us, it’s 100 percent local, made with local produce. So we can try to create a huge library of flavour using and recognising other people’s culture as an instrument to create knowledge.
How does the lab take inspiration from the humanities, arts and sciences?
The lab’s an interdisciplinary place, which allows people with different backgrounds to work together and collaborate. This space is open to everybody. We have interactions with artists and philosophers – there’s no rule about who could be interested. When food is central, is core, there’s always a way of connecting people.
For example, one of the artists we hosted was interested in creating art using food waste. We also worked on a project about rancidity and how people like or dislike rancid tastes. At that point a philosopher could work on the idea of acceptability of rancid flavours related to where people live, then the anthropological angle of how taste is developed in societies, and finally the scientific: let’s make a rancid product and try to control the rancidity, to make a taste we can control. Many rancid products exist around the world, like rast – lamb hung without preservatives – in the Faroe Islands, rancid butter in Morocco and yak butter in Tibet. So we can try to understand how and when a product becomes rancid, and where’s the boundary between people liking it and the product going off.
Finally, what is the future of food?
I’m not a fan of talking about the food of the future. I just think there’s no future unless we acknowledge what comes before. We have a pretty strong knowledge from the past, and there are many things we should learn from if we want to create better food for the future. Here we are stimulating curiosity and trying to bring arguments and give people tools to understand food from different perspectives. I don’t think I can say that what we’re doing is the food of the future. I don’t know if this is going to be a product that people will eat. But for sure we’re giving our reasons as to why it could be interesting to make tempeh in Scandinavia, for example. And if a product like this can add value to local varieties of bean in the middle of Sweden and give more value to a local product and a reason why a producer should still grow these whole varieties, then that’s a really good goal, because we’re not just preserving a technique, we’re also preserving a different product. We’re basically promoting biodiversity, which is probably the basis of life. M