China experiments with molecular cuisine

Chinese cuisine, famous for dumplings steamed in bamboo baskets and Peking duck slow-cooked over wood from fruit trees, seems a far cry from the high-tech equipment used in so-called molecular cuisine.

But Dong Zhenxiang, owner of the Da Dong restaurant in Beijing which is a leader of the trendy culinary movement here, says fresh techniques can only improve traditional Chinese cooking.

"Importing new cooking skills is aimed at improving, enriching and promoting Chinese cuisine. Molecular gastronomy is only one of those skills," said Dong, whose establishment also serves platter upon platter of classic roast duck.

Molecular cuisine, a phrase ascribed to a scientific approach to gastronomy, seeks to investigate and explain the chemical reasons behind the transformation of ingredients.

The trend was on full view when hundreds crammed into a chic Beijing art gallery for demonstrations given by chef Albert Adria of elBulli, the Spanish restaurant seen as the world leader in the molecular cuisine movement.

"It is amazing. We got 13,000 emails for this event," said Irish chef Brian McKenna, who organised the two classes in Beijing's trendy 798 district, as well as a dinner staged by Da Dong which wrapped up at the weekend.

Adria, brother of the restaurant's head chef Ferran, whipped up "magical chocolate ice powder", a white caramel dessert in the shape of a thin maple leaf and a layered green tea and mango cookie for the spellbound foodies.

"There is a passion for cooking here that is incredible," Adria told AFP.

He said at one class he had "made 12 dishes and improvised with a few things -- a bit of a Chinese-Spanish mix", calling the huge turnout "a major surprise". Each participant paid about 100 dollars to attend the event.

Fu Yongjun, a cooking consultant for Unilever Foodsolutions who was one of the hundreds to see Adria in action in Beijing, eagerly snapped photos of his kitchen acrobatics.

"I am very interested in molecular gastronomy. I think this is a high standard in Western food -- very fresh and secret," Fu told AFP.

"Maybe Chinese chefs will want to learn something from this."

But Adria, whose Costa Brava restaurant in April was crowned best in the world for the fourth year running by Restaurant Magazine, bristled at the label "molecular cuisine" for his innovative work.

"That is a label they have stuck on me," he said. "I don't cook 'molecular' -- I know what I'm doing and I want to make wonderful dishes."

Last year, elBulli received two million reservation requests but served just 8,000 meals, made by a team of 40 chefs. The restaurant is only open for six months of the year; the other six months are dedicated to research.

Thermal lamps, silicon moulds and a vigorous use of blenders, freezers and desiccators are common at elBulli, but Adria says his kitchen is far from being a science lab.

"Some people say elBulli is pure technology, but if that were the case, why wouldn't I have 40 machines instead of 40 chefs?" he wondered aloud.

The restaurant has been criticised in some circles for its intensive use of potentially risky chemical ingredients but its chefs have repeatedly dismissed the claims as unfounded.

McKenna, who has worked in several Michelin-starred restaurants, is a firm elBulli fan, and said Adria's demonstrations might inspire a boost in the level of Western food in Beijing.

"Everything that happens in food today in every restaurant in the world -- they have had an influence on it!" he said.

"They were the first people to put food in a Martini glass, and even Chinese restaurants all over now put food on black stone or brick -- it's all from them," McKenna said.

"They have massively changed what we do inside of restaurants -- it is phenomenal," he added,

As for the Chinese capital's Western restaurant scene, he said: "It is all grey... there are cooks in Beijing, chefs I am not sure -- all this has to change."

When asked if elBulli's brand of molecular cuisine could take off here, McKenna replied: "Absolutely! The Chinese are the most food-knowledgeable people in the world."

Da Dong, which has reportedly invested tens of thousands of dollars in high-tech equipment, now offers more than a dozen "molecular" dishes , some of them based on seafood or goose liver.

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