In the teeming mass of jumbled lanes and haphazard buildings that is Old Delhi's Chandni Chowk, silk saris, bunches of green chilli, bicycles laden with steel water flagons and an overhanging web of gnarled electricity lines provide an unlikely backdrop for scientists in white polo shirts. Add the rolling video camera and the busy photographer and our touring brigade becomes quite the attraction.
But we aren't here to be ogled. We are here to eat – in a manner of speaking – at the paratha house Baburam Parathewale. In the entrance to the miniscule eatery sits Mr Om Prakesh, cross-legged and hunched over a blackened pot of bubbling ghee. He scoops a little dough, flips it, stuffs it, moulds it and throws it into the hot fat, showing us how to make one of his famed parathas. Up a creaking set of stairs Klaus Gassenmeier, head of analytical science for Givaudan's Europe office, has set up a headspace capture unit: a travelling laboratory set up to trap a food's aroma molecules. Parathas, fizzing with hot oil, are rushed to Gassenmeier, who secures glass domes over them and lets evaporation work. Aroma molecules are trapped in and then flushed from minute porous filters leading from the glass domes. It takes around an hour to collect a sufficient sample by headspace capture and the result is a mere 30 microlitres of flavour-infused, concentrated solvent. A paratha in a teardrop.
The liquid will be fed into a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer (GCMS). The resulting molecular breakdown provides a fingerprint of the food's aromas and will enable Gassenmeier and others to chemically recreate the fundamental flavour of that perfect Delhi paratha.
It's day four of a six-day Givaudan "Culinary Trek", a trans-India fact-finding mission by the Swiss flavour house's research team who, responding to a burgeoning market for processed foods with ethnic tastes, are seeking flavours to define modern India.
Based near Zurich, Givaudan is a megalith in the processed food world. If you have eaten crisps, or a ready meal or sipped a fizzy drink, you are more than likely to have tried one of their creations. Food flavourings – natural, nature-identical or artificial – are in almost every processed or packaged food, from boutique chocolates to oven chips. Since 1999, Givaudan's taste and culinary treks have taken scientists from Gabon to Columbia in search of the next big thing (a success on the scale of Coca-Cola is the holy grail).
"Some of the Trek is about having an idea about what the client is looking for and some of it fills gaps in our portfolio. Some of it is seeing directionally where the industry is going," explains Jeff Peppet, Givaudan's director of marketing communications.
Whether a brand wants to turn a "base" of corn or soy (the "building blocks of fast food" as Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma put it) into a tasty meal, boost a puttanesca sauce or add oomph to an otherwise-nondescript low-calorie snack, it's likely to turn to a flavour house for help. Our freshly captured paratha aroma, courtesy of Mr Prakesh, may one day manifest in a hint of butteriness in, say, a branded wheat cracker.
Which brand, we can only guess: in a multi-billion-dollar industry where every mouth represents potential profit, it pays to keep a secret. Flavour companies never speak of their clients and vice versa. And where ingredients and cooking methods have been supplanted by androgynous terms – "non-dairy cheese analogues" and "stickiness reducing candy matrices" – it's easy to understand why the secret relationships between Givaudan and clients remain doubly sacrosanct: the aim is to sell a whole food, a lifestyle product that is more than the sum of its parts.
Flavour, it goes without saying, is nothing new to the subcontinent. Her 1.2 billion mouths thrive on a tapestry of spices and herbs that have shaped the region's economy for millennia. The use of food flavourings dates back to at least the Middle Ages, when spices masked putrid meat. Synthesised flavours emerged alongside developments in organic chemistry and nowadays the world's most popular flavouring is vanillin, mostly biosynthesised from waste wood pulp.
Amanda Bevan, Givaudan's technical manager for the UK told me: "There is a big demand for anything ethnic here and the demand for Indian flavours is high." Our curry industry turns over more than £3bn a year – a fact processed food makers know better than most. Again, the West is capitalising on India and her spices.
The Willy Wonka-esque exploration of flavour development seems a strangely exact approach to take to something so subjective. Flavour has been dubbed a "cognitive figment" and is scientifically nothing more than a combination of sensory signals and memories. Smell, not taste, is essential to flavour: not only are aroma compounds detected by smell, but the nose is thought to have a hotline to the brain, making associations triggered by aromas intensely powerful. Aroma fingerprints of popular foods through GCMS provide the best facsimiles possible of communities' collective culinary consciences, and there is big business in getting it right.
Painstaking research and a "pre-trek" by India-based flavourists and consulting chefs have whittled down 10 "target" dishes, each defined as having some or all of the aroma components missing in the flavour market or that have been requested by a client. No tikka masala or vindaloo here – the drive is for real, accurate copies of real, meaningful tastes. The irony being that food flavours stand in where authenticity is impossible.
"The demand for authenticity is on the increase. We have the ability to develop understanding with chefs to deliver authenticity to a mass consumer market" says Peppet.
Key to that delivery is chef Thomas Chan, who I find staring as if his life depended on it at a griddle of pav bhaji (bubbling vegetables topped with butter). Chan will recreate target dishes in the test kitchen and, though local ingredients and cooking methods make his task a hard one – where to find a tandoor oven at Givaudan's offices, for example? – create he must, so scientists can compare the flavours they develop in the laboratory with the target dish. "We link things together, they take them apart," jokes Gassenmeier of his colleagues, the flavourists.
"Machines give you a skeleton, a major flavour," says senior analyst EeFah Chong, using the headspace capture unit in a Delhi samosa house. "But the signature – the key notes of the flavour – need a flavourist's nose. We are the chemists, they are the artists."
It's an apt metaphor. An impeccable sensory memory and a very good sense of smell (as well as years of scientific graft) come as standard, but what makes a great flavourist stand out is creativity and intuition.
Tall, potbellied Manoj Degwekar and short, bespectacled Prasad Raote form an unlikely double-act. Together, they dissect nuances in popular dishes and using the secrets of volatile molecules – as broken down by Chong and Gassenmeier – build aromas that suit markets.
At Zaffran in Mumbai, we try a yoghurty rajasthani kadhi. "What kind of acid would you use here?" asks head of savoury marketing, Neri Mamburam.
"Lactic with a touch of malic," replies Raote, without a moment's hesitation.
But there are gaps in knowledge. At Mumbai's spice market we come across ingredients even the flavourists don't recognise. A bark-like "tree flower" smells of lemongrass and I chew a silver moss that is deceptively bitter but has an intensely sweet aftertaste. Like that moss, the flavour industry is a master of trickery. By adding chemical compounds to any foodstuff, our brains are deceived. In the laboratory, a parts-per-million addition of allium compounds to a soup base could change a flavour from vegetable to French onion.
In the field, creating a language out of otherwise utterly subjective opinions is down to scores of small bottles, each containing an aroma or "descriptor". Acting as building blocks – labels read "mashed potato", "creamy sour", even "sweaty" – they allow the team to document olfactory profiles of dishes in calibrated terms.
In a strip-lit restaurant in a leafy street in Mumbai's Dadar district, we profile a rich, caramely dhangari (shepherd's) mutton. Roasted coconut and sweet spices shape the top notes of the dish and the profiling panel's murmuring begins as defining impressions are picked out and rated in strength. The next day, we tried a witheringly fresh rogan josh. Its flavour curve opened with creamy notes, before coriander and tanginess took over, only to be succeeded by chilli, encouraging more mouthfuls.
I watch as Chong carefully loads minute vials into special transporting cases. "I like the way there's chemistry behind food – it's not like we eat it and that's that. There are a lot of chemical reactions."
Indeed, many of the aroma molecules we capture are time-sensitive, innately shaped by the cooking method or "cue" of the dish. A cup of coffee contains more than 1,000 different volatiles, many attributable to the roasting process. Likewise, Indian foods – already intricate with their many ingredients – are rendered more complex still by the cooking cues involved. Roasted spices, marination, tandoor cooking – each shapes the chemical processes that in turn flavour a dish accordingly and makes the art of creating an aroma replica so skilful.
On our last day, returning from capturing tandoori aromas, I push for the potential applications of flavours developed from the trek.
"I expect each sample to contain 200 aroma compounds – but it will take about 60 to recreate tadka dahl," says Gassenmeier. "It has great potential for dried snacks." Ah, so a dhal flavour crisp, say?
"Components may end up in the market, but not necessarily a whole dish flavour. There's a real need for these flavours," Peppet tells me.
Rather than the punchy top-notes of hot spices, fried, buttery, caramelised smells seemed particularly exciting. "This is a very typical Indian dish but we can explore it in different representations, for example, a cracker: if it has a crusty, nice, fatty aroma, that can add value," explains Raote over a piping-hot samosa. A freshly fried note could deceive the brain and boost the perceived fattiness (and tastiness) of a relatively healthy processed food. Not that this trip will yield straightforward results. "You never know what the customer's base will be – anything can happen. Sometimes we tell the client it won't be possible [to make edible food out of a questionable base]," Degwekar told me. Initial results hint that some of the flavours from the trek are hoped to be on the market by the end of the year.
There's no stopping the wave of commercial and packaged foods symptomatic of "development". Yet the equation is balanced, as the passion, tradition and values that go into a Mumbai pav bhaji emerge as inspiration behind potential new blockbuster snacks in the UK. Flavourings break down boundaries.
One afternoon Neri Mamburam said: "Consumers may not even know what they like. If we can translate it ... " just as alien, smoky, intensely nutty aroma stopped us in our tracks. "If we can capture that," Mamburam laughed, "it would be really good!"
Inside the flavour industry
* Givaudan's taste and aroma business brings in $4bn revenue a year.
* The global flavour industry last year generated $20bn in sales.
* Rapid consolidation in recent years has seen a handful of major players emerge. Firmenich, International Flavours and Fragrances and Symrise are all key competitors.
* In the UK, the market for natural flavours alone is forecast to hit 6,551 tons by 2012.
* Givaudan's most popular synthesised flavours in the British food market are beef, chicken, cheese and vegetable.
* Some of Givaudan's biggest clients may include brands such as Walkers, Cadbury and Coca-Cola but sales to smaller clients are growing rapidly – especially in India.
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