The Last Meal: Hawker dishes in the future (The Substation, 29-30 March 2019)


The documentation of this project, “The Last Meal”, comes a bit late – although perhaps a little fittingly because a number of food-related ailments seemingly kept me from being able to work at my maximum potential.

Earlier this year, I was fortuitously brought together with Chef Ming (of JAM at Siri House) – by The Substation – and thus began a collaboration to reinterpret local/hawker fare into a kind of anxiety-provoking menu. A disturbingly uncanny trip up and down and around memory lane! A speculative vision of our human weakness fondness for nostalgia meets hard future utilitarian compromises! An experimental work for the palate! It was truly an pleasure and honour to be able to work with Chef Ming who took it on with so much energy and so many ideas to take it further, especially the start of the project coinciding with a period of severe fatigue for me.

I had recently sought treatment (CBT/Exposure Therapy) for what has been a lifelong affliction of emetophobia (a completely debilitating fear of vomiting) and an unreasonable aversion to acidic or vinegary foods (a difficult thing to explain at times, because it can sound absurd to preemptively tell everyone “NO VINEGAR PLZ” in the off-chance that any unknown dish might have vinegar). And I had also seen an endocrinologist to ask if there was anything to explain my ridiculously tiny appetite and aversion to cold temperatures – and was subsequently diagnosed with hypothyroidism (so said all the tests, despite me being an extremely hyper person). And finally, the biggest factor of all that had triggered this intense self-examination was: pregnancy! SHOCK! HORROR! Yes folks, the Ding and South are unexpectedly multiplying (stay tuned for a documentation of this new long-term project), and this meant that for a period of time during the first trimester I developed an strong aversion to my favourite food of all – eggs! This was very hard to live down indeed, compounding all of my food anxieties despite my attempts to deal with them head-on like an adult by following up with all these medical investigations. So all of this was in the background as we began discussions for this food project….

The starting point for our conversation had been one of my past projects from a Healthcare Workshop with the Kyoto Institute of Design x Royal College of Art, whilst I was doing my MA at Design Interactions (RCA). In a way, that workshop’s premise was already a bit like smashing two worlds together: you had that base of a historically practical and functional Japanese approach to researching and designing for elderly care (I remember our Japanese collaborator bringing to us these booklets of amazing innovative mobility aids and novel healthcare aids designed to assist in every aspect of elderly care) – meeting the provocative, parallel realities of a speculative future (as students from our Design Interactions programme used to call it, ahem, a more “DI” approach).

PC133515 PC133512
PC143630 PC143606

Kyoto 2014: Kyoto D-lab held a Healthcare Futures Workshop centering on robotics in collaboration with the Design Interactions Course at the Royal College of Art – led by Professor Anthony Dunne and James Auger and D-lab’s Professor Julia Cassim.

Me, Calum Bowden, and Hiroko Narasaki worked on a project imagining a scenario where a robot was to prepare your “last meal”, having collected a lifetime of data of your food preferences, being able to robotically prepare the food you wanted in a texture that you could consume despite all your age-related changes in chewing and swallowing physiology. We discussed the ways in which factors such as end-of-life, food preferences, and necessary food modifications could be determined, and surveyed Japanese people on a list of foods they liked most. (Obvs this was also borne from our common interests in eating lots of good food in japan and spending a long time in supermarkets and food halls looking at all the beautiful plastic foods and gorgeous food packagings…)


At the time we also thought that there might also be the issue where a meal is the sum of many parts and that people develop habits for eating certain foods together with others. But when we collect the data about the meal, the essential connections between unusual connections could also be broken – and odd pairings might be made. For example, in this case someone told us they loved foods such as Annin Tofu, Premium Niigata Rice, and Ashirari Decorations (to liven up the plating of her food). But in reality, no Japanese person would logically make a menu of Annin Tofu (Almond Jelly) together with Rice.

This was the starting point of the conversations we had to develop The Last Meal in Singapore, and to engage with a wider set of concerns facing the food industry in the near future (and specific to Singapore). Rather than to capture nostalgia in a perfectly rendered dish, the idea was to invoke the sense of the uncanny through subtle means. A twist of presentation, an unfamiliar texture, a physical constraint. The amount of alienation had to be right, and it was good that Ming kept us all on track by focusing on elements that would be universally recognisable by all Singaporeans.

One thing that was clear was that when we imagined someone eating these foods in a near-future post-apocalyptic bunker, the person in the bunker was very specifically us. A Singaporean, here in the present. It wasn’t a baby from the future who hadn’t had the chance to gain the lived experience of enjoying hawker food in the form that we eat right now. It wasn’t someone from a foreign country being introduced to Singaporean hawker cuisine for the first time. It wasn’t about exoticising or fetishising our nostalgia for hawker cuisine and ‘heritage foods’. It was instead about transporting a Singaporean living in the present into a distant, uncertain food future where perhaps food security was an issue; where automation and efficiency was top priority to the extent of influencing hawker practices, where alternative proteins had become widely accepted in an era of land scarcity; where steady state foods would be commonplace backups; where a rapidly aging population would seek out enzyme softened versions of favourite foods to recapture the tastes of olde…

DONT BE SAD, HAVE YOUR LAST MEAL WITH US! Tickets selling fast. Join us on 29 & 30 March for an interactive art experience with a four-course dystopian take on local hawker fare, designed specially by chef Ming Tan (@maehng), in collaboration with visual artist and technologist Debbie Ding. SAD: The Last Meal addresses Singapore's obsession with nostalgia, by looking at the alleged death of the Singaporean hawker, and the anxiety around losing a facet of heritage that this country holds so dear—our local food culture. Our 7pm slots are nearly sold out, grab your tickets for the 9pm slot at Tickets are $35 per person. #thevanishing #citieschangepeopledie #subafterdark #hawkerculture #sgfood #singapore #nostalgicsg #heritagesg #nolstagicpanic

A post shared by The Substation (@the_substation) on

Somehow this also needed to be rooted in reality, so we planned to shoot a series of audiovisual stimulation aids to excite (or confuse) the senses and stimulate (or deflate) the appetite. With the help of Cain and the sub team, we shot Ming in his kitchen at Siri House cooking up the originals of the dishes that were about to be reinterpreted (or as Ming likes to say, that we were about to try to knock off the pedestal…)





Although we had recorded sound on site in the kitchen, the original sound was not usable – it held the sound of a living kitchen with food being prepared and a restaurant during service. If I had used that original sound, it would feel like you were a disembodied spectator looking into some other space when you listened to the video like that. But I wanted the cooking to sound like it was actually happening right front in front of you. LIVE SOUNDS in whatever space you were in. So the sound had to be totally manufactured from scratch….

I suppose sound design for a video to be played back in an open space is always like putting on overly-dramatic stage makeup so that the details can also be seen under harsh stage lights and from a distance. So I did make some of the sounds very extreme and almost comedic. For example, for a bouncing fish cake, I decided to use some exaggerated bouncing balloon sounds that surprisingly seemed to work. And I cut up a lot of juicy leaves (actually they were leftover strawberry tops and stems) and swished about a lot of polymorph beads and mic-ed everything up painfully closely to get the most goosebump inducing foley sound.

I was inspired by the foley sound I had heard on the documentary Fruit Hunters and a show about Chaoshan cuisine that has been on Netflix recently, Flavourful Origins. And I guess you could say I made it all in the spirit of ASMR videos.

These were to be screened in front of the audience as they ate the new reinterpretations of dishes… I am a little shy about showing the final mix in isolation online because it truly was a bit over-the-top (I also have to confess that I did some of the final edits in the controlled access machine room with two operational laser cutters and their giant extractor fans whirring noisily in the background so my working conditions were also less than ideal) but I might make a trailer mix when I have more time over the weekend.


Some pictures behind the scenes…


Chef Ming peeks through the curtain to see what guests we have for the night


Chicken Rice in Kueh Form


Chef Ron doles out the secret sauce (cucumber)



WhatsApp Image 2019-03-31 at 22.49.10

Retextured Carrot Cake, first lovingly batch-cooked in a wok with two different varieties of chai por, then brutally blended so to allow it to be hygienically and efficiently reheated in retort pouches; all to be squeezed directly (or sucked up) into the mouths of the audiences.


Laksa in a dried form, vacuum packed for longevity and easy long term storage.



A special Laksa rempah coating the puffed rice, ready to be rehydrated at a moment’s notice to produce a seriously authentic tasting laksa soup.

Now that I am writing out this post I realised I forgot to take a picture of dessert – the tau huay!

WhatsApp Image 2019-03-30 at 23.44.02

All of the production of this food was entirely undertaken by the amazing Chef Ming (and his assistant Chef Ron), who are both extremely knowledgeable and superbly skilled and inventive with the food they prepare. The actual realisation of this project completely wouldn’t have been possible without Ming’s professional and gastronomical expertise and his willingness to do something quite so daring with the food. For most chefs would rather make a pleasing menu, rather than one that draws gasps of shock from an audience; a menu that manages to bring the audience to relook their food with a critical eye. I am not qualified to cook the food and serve it to a public audience for I have not the required basic food hygiene training accreditation to do so, nor do I know the intricacies of how to organise or run a service! My role in collaboration felt much smaller; because ALL the props has to go to Ming’s efforts and hard work to make this experience a reality! I only provided the idea and brain fodder for the project, but all of the amazing food (and food innovation work!) was the Chef’s work! It was really my honour to be able to work with Ming.

Countless thanks must also go to The Substation: Annabelle and Si Min for facilitating the entire process and helping to take care of all of the small details, as well as all of the Substation staff (and interns Ariel and Celine) for all their help. Without the help of so many people this wouldn’t have been possible!

WhatsApp Image 2019-03-30 at 23.09.35


20190330_221934 20190330_221929

Some highly observant audience members asked me on the night why there wasn’t ice kachang and nasi lemak on the menu. I was puzzled about the specificity of this question until I realised that they were referring to the image they had seen on the promotional material drawn by the designer, which ended up being printed in an unexpectedly huge size and mounted on the wall on the night of the event. Well, the answer is that at an earlier stage the shortlisted dishes originally included ice kachang and chicken rice so that was drawn into the flyer. However, the chicken rice was in a pyramid shape that could have been easily interpreted as the pyramid of a nasi lemak as well. Well spotted y’all.


In case you were wondering yes to the credit of the designer the portraits did have a rather uncanny likeness…

In the Press…

Plural Mag – The Hunger Games
The Peak Magazine – SAD: The Last Meal art exhibition serves up dystopian versions of beloved hawker dishes
SG Magazine – This is how local chef Ming Tan interprets dystopian hawker cuisine
CNA Lifestyle – Kitchen Stories: Fighting insecurity and emotions to prove himself to older chefs

Foods of the Baltic: Kvass/Gira, Pelmeni, Cepelinai (Zeppelin), Pelēkie zirņi ar speķi (Grey Peas with Speck), and Beaver Stew

A quick compendium of notable foods consumed on a brief working trip to Lithuania and Latvia. Alright, let’s be practical, chances are that the 5 people who still read this blog will probably never ever go to Lithuania or Latvia but yet I will say – IF YOU EVER DO, then these following foods are very much recommended.


Fermented Black Ryebread Cocktail


Gira/Kvass from Forto Dvaras (Kaunas Old Town, Lithuania)


Gira/Kvass from Zalias Ratas (Kaunas, Lithuania)

You may be wondering why would you drink this fermented non-alcoholic drink when you could drink a fermented alcoholic drink (BEER?) but the simple answer is that: it is super delicious. Like liquid bread candy. Like summery caramel raisin juice. As strangely and inexplicably addictive as Club Mate.

I had become really excited to try the Kvass after watching Life of Boris aka KVASSMAN demonstrate how to make it and all I can say is that… its indeed probably the best drink you can get in Lithuania and Latvia.

In the case of Latvia, if you are travelling in Riga… IT IS EVEN WORTH GOING TO RIGA AIRPORT 2 HOURS EARLY TO LEISURELY DRINK MORE KVASS AT THE LIDO. (There are Lidos all over Riga but having reached the airport means you can actually sit back in the Lido (the “Wetherspoons” of Latvia) and relax with your Kvass.


Tiny Slavic Ravioli


XL Pelmeni in the morning

“What food is still available at this hour?” I asked a waitress at 11pm in Riga. She said, “well at this house there is only the McDonalds, Kebabs, or…. Pelmeni?” – with the Pelmeni being the only true ‘local’ option. So at almost midnight in Riga, I found myself at XL PELMENI, a curious buffet style fast food dumpling house with tacky plastic cave wall features, easy wipe-clean tables bolted to the floor, and an interesting mix of clientele. From families with young children, to young men wolfing down huge mountains of cheese dumplings, middle aged couples eating dumplings along with a bottle of wine, and old men nursing their beers alone in the corner with a tiny dill covered salad. Its young staff loitered around bored and uneasy, wearing generic hats and aprons.


I was very confused as nothing was in English, but it appears that you simply pick up a series of tiny bowls on plastic trays and fill up your bowls with what looks like tiny white geometric tchotchkes, filled with rather delicious mystery meats (there were labels, but I couldn’t read them).


The Pelmeni is basically a very tiny ravoli made with a thin skin of white unleavened dough, very similar to the wonton or jiaozi or gyoza or mandu or pierogi or varenyky depending on where you’re from. Garnish with white creamy substance (sour cream? kefir? yoghurt? mayonez??? help what is going on?) and let the dill rain from heaven. Unfortunately I did not take a picture of the pelmeni but you can see some of them in the top of this menu… that’s what it looks like inside the pot!


Lithuanian Potato Meat Blimp Sailing straight into your Mouth


Named after the zeppelin airships, this is actually nothing like its floating namesake, and more like a dense bullet of pure plastinated potato. Sometimes served with a side of magic fat gravy. They mash the potato, then boil it into this ultra dense format with a thick layer of potato covering a delicious meat filling.

On a side note, in some strange ways it is reminiscent of the format of the traditional Hokchew (Foochow Chinese) ball if you replaced fish and flour with POTATO.


If they give you an option to have a half portion, restrain yourself and order the half portion because they are basically SOLID POTATO BLIMPS and the average human adult can only realstically consume one of these zeppelins at a time. (For your reference a “debbieportion” is actually 1/2 OF AVERAGE LITHUANIAN ZEPPELIN)


Most Latvian Food according to random young Latvian boy at Lido

“What is your most Latvian food???” I asked the young server at the Lido.
He pointed to a mountain of peas. “Peas are very Latvian.”
So here is an unfeasibly huge plate of Grey Peas that I ate at a Lido in Riga Old Town.


They’re not very grey actually.

BONUS: “Food from the Nobleman’s Table”


Menu at Zalias Ratas (Kaunas, Lithuania)

Often in the menus you will see the mention of “food from the peasant’s table” vs “food from the nobleman’s table”
All the potato-based foods I have listed above are typically classed as ‘peasant food’, although today there’s hardly any real distinction between the two. For the most part, eating out (and eating well) in Lithuania seems exceedingly affordable.


Menu at Restaurant Lokys (Vilnius, Lithuania)


In Vilnius, I decided to go to one of these “Nobleman’s Restaurant” to try Beaver Stew. Apparently beaver was historically quite commonly eaten by noblemen who went hunting; more than a hundred thousand beavers live in the Lithuanian forest and Lithuania and Latvia are probably the two countries in the world with the biggest numbers of Eurasian Beavers. (FYI: Beavers are actually completely vegetarian and their big teeth are only used to eat twigs and bark)


Lokys means “bear” so there are huge wooden bears everywhere in Restaurant Lokys. In case one cannot travel all the way to Lithuania to eat Lithuanian Beaver Stew but still wishes to cook a Beaver (assuming one has already caught a beaver???) here is a recipe for Beaver that I found in the Kaunas Town Hall:


Gero apetito / Labu apetīti!

Exotic fruit and vegetable: Pepino, Curuba, Tamarillo, Lulo, Pawpaw, Kaki, Kohlrabi, Passionfruit

The Fresh & Fruity around the corner from our house is undoubtedly one of the main reasons I like living in Stamford Hill (despite its distance from RCA). I’ve always thought that having access and proximity to a good market or greengrocer is crucial to one’s overall nutrition, because let’s face it if you are hungry you are not going to want to walk very far or wait very long to get or make the food (unless you are strangely perverse, or George). When in South Kensington I have the tendency to devolve into a diet of box soups, instant bulgur pots and crisps from the vending machine, or the occasional starvation-induced splurge at the school canteen, but that is because that is the food which is most accessible to me there.

Recently I have been working on a project relating to plant growth regulators and I watched the most amazing fruit documentary (Thanks for the recommendation Katie!) so now I am even more mad for fruit. The funny thing is that around the same time I suddenly realised Fresh & Fruity were importing in different fruits and vegetable. (Whose smart idea was it? I’m totally sold on it.) Since their speciality is just fruit and vegetable, they really have a lot of it and its usually much better and cheaper than the Sainsburys/Asda (unless you want to have everything pre-washed for you in spring water). Sometimes you even get a whole box of produce for a pound or two when they’re in excess and on their last legs. The other day I made mango sorbet out of a big box of mangos that I got for a pound. Recently they had an exotic fruit sale and we were fortunate to have gone there on the very day the fruits were being set out in their pallets for sale! They were so exotic that they even had to have long descriptions explaining what they were like on the inside!

The Fruit Portraits

Pepino Melon

The fruit of the Solanum muricatum is also known as sweet pepino, pepino dulce, pepino melon, melon pear. It is distantly related to melons and pears but more closely related to tomato and eggplant. This particular pepino melon came from Ecuador. The thin but surprisingly hardy skin is covered in brown stripes and on the inside the flesh is soft anne you will find a hollow in which there are white flat round seeds in a bunch. It tasted like a rock melon with a lighter, more delicate taste.

Curuba (Banana Passionfruit)

The Passiflora tarminiana is also known as Banana Passionfruit, banana poka (hawaii), curuba sabanera blanca (colombia), taxo/tauso/tacso (ecucaor), tumbo (bolivia). It is related to the passionfruit. Interestingly this is considered an invasive species in New Zealand as it thrives there and it is now illegal to sell or cultivate the plants and there are some concerns that the plant spreads too quickly in Australia and Hawaii. The taste of the fruit itself was very curious, sweet and quite tart with edible black seeds covered in orange pulp that is so intensely colored it is almost red. The seeds of the fruit had a lot more bite to them than a passionfruit we had also bought for comparison and we even worried for a moment that perhaps we shouldn’t be eating the seeds. The fruit is covered with tiny hairs and it turns from green to light green/yellow as it ripens. Interestingly, it bruises very easily and is much unlike the passionfruit which you can throw at someone’s head without worrying that the passionfruit will be dented. I found it to be very tart.


The fruit of the Solanum Betaceum is native to the Andes of Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia. It is also grown in other subtropical climates. It used to be known as “tree tomato” but the New Zealand Tree Tomato Promotions Council gave the fruit a new name to make it sound more exotic and seem less like a tomato. Tamarillo comes from the Maori word “tama” (leadership) and the Spanish word “amarillo” (yellow). I bought two types of tamarillos – red and yellow. The red one was more acidic and tart and the yellow one was softer and sweeter in general. Whilst the flesh is quite orange, the seeds are encased in bright red pulp which stains a bit as you cut or eat the fruit, the seeds are apparently edible but sometimes quite hard. In the end, it tasted like a mix between kiwifruit and tomato.

Lulo (Naranjilla)

The fruit of the Solanum quitoense is also known as naranjilla (ecuador, panama) or lulo (colombia). This one is from Colombia. The leaves of the plant have a very lovely shape so it is considered an ornamental plant in some parts; in general the plant itself is very delicate and cannot withstand high wind or sun, and is extremely susceptible to pests and diseases whenever grown on a large scale, often suffering from fungus attacks and pests. Apparently a few batches seeds had been sent to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) in the 1910s and attempts were made to plant it in greenhouses but all of them died! There is another story about how great attempts were made to grow it in Florida in 1948 where they flourished and 20 plants were about to fruit when they were all unexpectedly all destroyed in a hurricane! Basically the story of the naranjilla and the many attempts to grow it elsewhere has been historically a sad one. The fruit is soft and easily damaged when it is ripe and god knows how it even survived to get here. Its skin is looks leathery on the outside and it apparently has lots of hairs on the outside which are usually rubbed off when the fruit is prepared for sale. Its insides look a bit like a tomato but it tastes like a pineapple crossed with a citrus plant of some sort.

Kaki (Persimmon/Sharonfruit)

The Persimmon or SharonFruit needs no introduction. Its very common in Asia and I’ve eaten so much of it in the past. To be honest this has been one of my favourite fruits from Fresh and Fruity. The only fun fact I can offer about it is that it is technically a berry, but due to its solidly turgid fleshiness we often don’t think of it as a berry.


The Pawpaw is actually just a small papaya. In the UK they are small, unlike the huge ones I’m used to seeing in Southeast asia.

Kohlrabi (German radish)

The Kohlrabi is cultivated through artifical selection to get its distinctive swollen shaped stem. It is related to cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collard greens, and Brussels sprouts – they all come from the wild cabbage plant (Brassica oleracea).


I bought this Passionfruit so as to be able to crossreference its taste with the Banana Passionfruit. To be honest I preferred the Passionfruit to the Banana Passionfruit as the passionfruit was much sweeter.

The Insides of the Fruits

Pepino Melon

Curuba (compared with passionfruit)




What happened next

The Kohlrabi never got eaten in the end. Unfortunately (or fortunately) after they sat on the arm of our sofa for a few weeks they eventually turned into some sort of vegetal housepets. We named one of them Smiles and the other Lao Wang. It is very hard to eat vegetables that you have given names and personalities. Maybe we will plant them in a pot for summer and give them a new life.

You might also have been wondering why there has been nary a blip from me online recently and it is because I have been slaving day and night over a synbio-related project at school which is about to come to fruition (ahem). This post has been days in the making because I can only manage to find a little bit of time in-between actual work to write these posts up. It has been really intense. Maybe more about my new projects in the next post.

Tasty Wheat and Soya Protein: Tivall Burgers

In my continued exploration of food-grade protein design, yesterday we tried: Tivall Vegetarian Burgers. I obtained this from Whole Foods on High Street Kensington (where they did not have Quorn, but they did have a number of other “meatless” meat-alternatives. This Tivall Burger is also the same brand of veggie burger patty that is used in the jewish shops around Stamford Hill.

Name: Tivall Vegetarian Chargilled Burgers (“Chargrilled burgers made form lightly seasoned soya and wheat proteins”).
Ingredient list: Rehydrated Soya and Wheat Proteins (72%) (contains Gluten), Onion, Vegetable Oil, Egg White Powder, Salt, Yeast, Pea Fibres, Potato Starch, Flavourings, Stabilizers (Sodium Alginate, Guar Gum), Malt Extract, Onion Powder, Garlic Powder, Spices, Calcium Phosphate, Vitamin C, Vitamin B3 (Niacin), Zinc Oxide, Ferric Diphosphate, Vitamin E, Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid), Vitamin B6, Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin), Vitamin B1 (Thiamin), Folic Acid, Vitamin B12.

According to William Shurtleff & Akiko Aoyagi’s “History of Soybeans and Soyfoods in the Middle East”, in an 1995 Interview in SoyaScan Notes, Daniel Chajuss (of Hayes General Technology Co. Ltd, who has done a lot of work on Soy in the USA and Israel) said that Tivall is one of the 3 major manufacturers of meat alternatives in Israel (The others are Soglowek (aka Zoglabeck/Zoglovek/Zoglowek) and Shamir Food Industries Ltd with 50% of the Israeli (non-export) market. He suggests that Israeli consumers (even non-kosher and non-vegetarians) buy these vegetarian products because they are convenience products, and kosher diners automatically stay kosher by eating vegetarian food.

As for the interesting part, the interview also mentions the origins of Tivall – traced back to a Dr Michael (Micha) Shemer and Saul Katzen. Saul Katzen was the first person to make meat alternatives from extruded soy flour in patty form, but the soy flour product (fines from non-toasted white flakes sifted out prior to alcoholic extraction) was apparently not tasty enough and also gave people some intestinal gas. The soy flour was bought from Chajuss’ company, and Chajuss apparently urged Katzen to buy soy protein concentrates instead of soy flour and run the concentrates through extrusion equipment. Although Katzen had the equipment, he stuck to soy flour because he felt that soy flour was less wasteful. Chajuss believed that the use of soy flour led Katzen’s company into bankruptcy which was very sad, and for a long time before it happened Chajuss had been giving Katzen a lot of soy flour for free.

After that Michael Shemer came onto the scene, having left University of Illinois, he worked for Miles Laboratories which had purchased Worthington Foods, working on a citric acid project. When he was fired by MIles in the late 1970s he joined an Israeli company named Pedco which made many kinds of food products, and Shemer developed new processes for making meat analogs. In 1983 Tivall, a company located on a kibbutz in northern Israel bought Pedco. It had been established and incorporated solely for the purpose of purchasing Pedco and its activities. Dr Shemer was granted several international and israeli patents on his processes which use reducing agents to soften gluten, but it is speculated that Tivall no longer uses the Shemer patents, instead using a 1956 Hartman/Worthington patent which is now in public domain – and which is what the other company Shamir is also using now.

Tivall’s vegetarian ‘meat alternatives’ apparently start with wheat gluten and use a reducing agent such as sodium sulfite or ascorbic acid (low pH) to make the gluten soft. A 1956 patent issued to Warren Hartman and assigned to Worthington Foods describes how to soften gluten by adding soy flour or soy protein. Their recipe seems to be a matter of food chemistry. Perhaps not as high-tech or exciting as I had expected but interesting to know exactly what I’m going to be eating.

Tivall Burgers with Mash topped with Fried Capers

We tried both frying them and baking them to see which would turn out better. I would say that baking them is infinitely better, frying does not impart the usual “browning” effects you might expect on them, but instead dries the insides of the patties out. Baking is extremely optimal. These patties were probably made to be baked.

The texture and the taste of these are excellent. So far, they have truly surpassed my expectation – complex and with a good bite to them. I would certainly eat this again – I think I even prefer these over normal meat burgers.

Next – for the sake of food exploration and SCIENCE – I will endeavour to try all the other Vegetarian/Meat-free Burgers including the Quorn Burger and Linda McCartney Vegetarian Quarter Pounder Burger. I was also interested in trying other meat-free burgers from UK supermarkets’ own housebrands such as Tescos, Sainsburys, Asda, and Morrisons – however! It seems that from my preliminary research that Tivall is apparently already the key supplier of meat-free alternatives for all these UK supermarket house brands! The sources seem flaky so I will have to dig a bit deeper. I would like to verify this and to see if there is a difference in products between the large retailers here. Tivall is apparently also very well established in many other countries in Europe, supplying some of the largest retailers in Netherlands, Israel, Germany, Sweden and Italy.

See also:
Tasty Mould: Quorn, Tempeh, and Huitlacoche

Tasty Mould: Quorn, Tempeh, and Huitlacoche

Many vegetarians probably have heard of these protein alternatives (Quorn and Tempeh) but I find it surprising how it is not actually common knowledge what sort of process has gone into the invention and production of these popular vegetarian protein foods. I am not a vegetarian, but I have been very interested in cultivating fungi and soy-product production methods. I think a useful starting point for my research would be to find out how these interesting vegetable proteins are made.


This is a piece of quorn from the dinner I had yesterday

In the 1960s it was believed that there would be a shortage of protein-based foods by the 1980s due to the growing world population. This did not happen. The saprophytic fungus (mould) known as Fusarium venenatum was discovered growing in Marlow, Buckinghamshire in 1967. Saprophytic means that it obtains food osmotically from dissolved or decaying organic material such as soil. For a decade it was originally misidentified as Fusarium graminearum (which alarmingly, is another mould which is considered a serious plant pathogen, producing mycotoxins in cereal crops). (Source) Through a joint venture between Rank Hovis McDougall and Imperial Chemical Industries, a particular strain of the fungi known as Fusarium venenatum, PTA-2684 was produced, after a ten year evaluation program to select and produce the best mycoprotein product for human consumption. Mycoprotein is the name of the product itself, derived from PTA-2684, in which the ribonucleic acid (RNA) content of the fungi has been reduced.

Oxygenated glucose syrup (the food-grade carbohydrate substrate) is poured into a fermentation vat and inoculated with a pure culture of F.venenatum spores (axenic fermentation). It is oxygenated so that the F.venenatum can respire, and excess CO2 is removed from the vat. Nitrogen is added in the form of ammonia to simulate the production of protein, and vitamins and minerals are added to improve the growth of the fungus. The temperature of the vat is kept at a constant to ensure the optimal growth of the fungus. It can grow very fast, doubling its mass every five hours. Finally it is treated with heat to remove excess levels of RNA as excessive DNA or RNA can result in uric acid (from the nucleic acids) being metabolised in the human body when the quorn is digested (which can eventually result in gout).

The hyphae (long, branching filamentous structure of the F.venenatum fungus) have a high length-diameter ratio and are morphologically similar to animal muscle cells, making it suitable as a muscle fiber replacer. Its nutrient profile is favourable and 100g of mycoprotein typically contains about 11.25g of protein, 6.258 of fiber, 3.258 of fat, 2.5g of carbohydrate, and 85kcal of energy.”

Food grade specifications of Mycoprotein (Source):

The two partners RHM and ICI invested on patents for growing and processing the fungus and other intellectual properties in the Quorn brand. The product was named after the village of Quorn in Leicester. Sainsburys agreed to stock the brand in 1985, which was its big break into the UK market – and later expansion into the Europe and North America market. All the Quorn in UK and Europe is produced in Marlow Foods’ factory in Stokesley.

In 2002 Marlow Foods was told by the British Advertising Standards Authority to delete the claim that it was a “mushroom protein” unless it “also gives equal prominence to either the ingredient’s fungal origin or explains its technical origin as a mycoprotein, found naturally in the soil but then put in a glucose medium and fermented.” (Source)

Searching on the internet yields images of advertising for Quorn back in the early 2000s with the description of Quorn as a “mushroom protein”. Perhaps it would be useful to try to discern the difference between Mushrooms and Fungi here. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi, and only certain types of fungi produce mushrooms. Technically speaking if a mushroom is a banana then a fungi would be the banana tree, so if we call a mushroom a fungi that would be a bit like calling a banana a banana tree instead. A slightly confusing thing is that the word “Fungi” comes from the latin word “Fungus” which literally means mushroom. But when we say fungi today it should mean things like mould, yeast, mildew, mushroom. I haven’t put Lichen in the list because they are technically composite organisms consisting of a fungus and an algal species capable of photosynthesis growing together in a symbiotic relationship.


Tempeh [Image Source: Ivan Lian on Flickr]

Tempeh is usually made using the mould known as Rhizopus olligosporus. The Rhizopus genus fungi are very common and include the common mould you see on top of spoiled food (Rhizopus nigricans is the common bread mould). Rhizopus olligosporus is the main mould used because this mould has the “strongest protease and lipase activity which are ideal for breaking down the soybean’s abundant proteins and fats), combined with the weakest amylase activity, making it excellent for producing tempeh from cereal grains or grain-soy mixtures.

To produce Tempeh, whole soya beans are first soaked and dehulled because the soya hulls are fibrous and not digestible for R. olligosporus. After that the beans are cooked, and then inoculated with R. olligosporus. Eventually the incubated beans and R. olligosporus will turn into one whole cake with the white mycelium (the vegetative mass of hyphae produced by the fungus) binding all the beans together. It seems that tempeh could also be made on other starchy beans but the traditional bean used for Tempeh is soy bean.

I could not find how tempeh was originally made or how it was invented. No story about how a tea leaf fell from a tree into someone’s glass of hot water, just some rumors about indonesians leaving a bunch of cooked soybeans out until they got moldy (but tasty). There is a book written in 1985 titled “History of Tempeh and Tempeh Products (1815-2011)” by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi and this very comprehensive account of tempeh does not quite elucidate its very first origins, only the scientific attempts by western/japanese scientists to identify and define the mould that is used to create tempeh. Where did the the mould come from then? Where did the indonesians get the mould in the first place? Was it all a matter of trial and error, or of leaving their beans out and hoping the right mould would come along and infect their soybeans? Surely there was a slightly more organised history to this fermented bean product? The term itself “tempeh” originates from Central Java and is not derived from the Chinese which also have many soy foods which usually start with the prefix tau/tao.

What makes it harder to find out more about the traditional origins and methods of producing tempeh is that scientific research on methods of producing tempeh through the years – particularly that of the method by Martinelli and Hesseltine (1964) in which partially cooked, inoculated soybeans are incubated in a perforated plastic bag and frozen after incubation – is apparently responsible for influencing methods for producing tempeh commercially in Java as well as in smaller domestic quantities in homes today.


Corn Smut [Image source: International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center on Flickr]

I’m also morbidly fascinated by Corn Smut or Huitlacoche, a terrifying corn dish I once ate in Mexico. It was introduced to me as the “mexican truffles” at a posh hotel restaurant, and my friend Luis had waxed lyrical about the amazing taste of these “mexican truffles”, but I was still very shocked when I cut open my omelette and saw these unholy white-grey corn tumours slowly oozing out in a puddle of little black spores. They had a rather… um… “interesting” cheesy taste but their visual appearance, to the uninitiated, is admittedly hard to get over.

Corn smut is apparently one of the oldest plant diseases to be illustrated in drawings – first being figured in the Florentine Codex which was prepared soon after the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1519 (cue an hour’s futile digression into looking up aztec codices…). The Aztecs also apparently consumed them and painted them in early murals.

[Image Source: Tania De la Paz on Flickr]

Ustilago maydis is a dimorphic fungus which grows in two ways: one as a single-celled haploid form on dead plants, and another as a parasitic, filamentous fungus which invades a living plant. It is a plant pathogen which affects seeds and flowers of cereals, wheat, corn, and grasses – and mainly corn, which is an important staple crop in Mexico. The Ustilago maydis relies on other plants like corn in order to complete its lifecycle.

When corn is infected, the normal kernels of corn on the cob are replaced by grossly inflated tumors which are the palpably swollen and enlarged cells of the infected corn plant, along with fungal threads and blue-blackish spores on the inside. Eventually the spores or teliospores burst out and fall off the corn, spreading in the wind. When it is being cultivated for human consumption, it is harvested before the teliospores burst out and becomes too mushy. Huitacoche has a short lifespan and has to be consumed within a short bracket of time. Although I am not sure if people eat it specifically for nutrition, when infected, the corn does have an increase in lysine which is an important amino acid for humans.

It is hard to decide whether the U.maydis is a detrimental or positive parasite for farmers. It can cause severe crop loss, yet in Mexico the swollen corn tumors are popular luxury foods. Farmers have been known to intentionally infect their crops with the fungus by scratching stalks of corns at their base with infected soil. It significantly increases the value of their corn when it is turned into corn smut, and it seems it is being researched as a solution for generating potential employment and income for farmers living in rural areas that already traditionally grow corn but are facing economic difficulties.

The etymology of huitlacoche is also particularly interesting. It comes from the Nahuatl word “cuitlacochin” which is thought to be from the Nahuatl words “cuitla” (excrement) and “cochtli” (sleeping). This is significant to the Nahuatl excrement does not only have the significance of waste but is often considered to be a distillation of food and wealth – for example, the Nahuatl word for “Gold” is teocuitlatl which is from “teotl” (god) and cuitla (excrement). I have always found this conjunction of waste/consumption and wealth/power to be of fascination to me.

Mould + Food = PROFIT???

The makers of Quorn seem keen to brand it as a mushroom-related product rather than as something that comes from what is basically mould from soil. Could it be because mushrooms are more palatable than mould? Most of my instinctual revulsion towards huitlacoche is that it looks like a mutated mouldy cob of corn – mainly the terrifying mouldy spores that burst out of the cells. Those who know my food idiosyncrasies will also know that I absolutely cannot consume blue cheeses or anything that is conspicuously mouldy, and am extremely cautious around fermented foods (especially dairy) that are meant to be intentionally sour (I am still very nervous about sour cream and vinegar). I see the presence of mould and a sour taste as possible indicators that a food has gone bad and should be disposed of. Logically, I can understand that they are not dangerous and perhaps even nutritious, but the fear of such foods (and of being sick because of consuming them) is a completely a physical reaction for me. I guess the idea of eating mould or a “waste” product, and even treating a “waste” product as a delicacy, is physically revolting/appalling even if I can identify it as being quite ideologically interesting.

In “The Accursed Share”, Bataille writes, “On the whole, a society always produces more than is necessary for its survival; it has a surplus at its disposal. It is precisely the use it makes of this surplus that determines it: The Surplus is the cause of the agitation, of the structural changes and of the entire history of society.” According to his theory of consumption, the accursed share is this excess portion of the economy that is destined to be spent in one of two ways: (1) to be spent as luxurious without gain (in the arts, in non-procreative sexuality, in lavish spectacles and monuments or (2) in outrageous and catastrophic outpourings (war, sacrifice, religion; a sacrifice so great that it even threatens the prevailing system).

Corn smut is a blight on corn and can lay waste to the entire crop if not controlled, so in effect it is a luxury in corn-centric Mexico where corn is the most important staple crop and is usually cherished and protected in most other circumstances. The corn plant is intentionally sacrificed through infection by the fungi, which kills the corn and makes it eventually no longer able to reproduce as corn. The infected corn cannot be used as staple crop; by being useless it is free, not subordinated to the normal demands of useful production; its price rises to that of a luxury good. Perhaps I am saying this only because its appearance makes me not exactly want to put it into my mouth – so I like to think that people came to love its taste because they associate it with luxury. Although I suppose in reality not everyone might be governed by such complex rules… what if for the most part people actually, really, really, just like the taste of it?

Bataille on the sacrifice: “The victim is surplus taken from the mass of useful wealth. And he can only be withdrawn from it in order to be consumed profitlessly, and therefore utterly destroyed. Once chosen, he is the accursed share, destined for violent consumption. But the curse tears him away from the order of things; it gives him a recognizable figure, which now radiates intimacy, anguish, the profundity of living beings.”

Some Burning Questions that may never be answered

Quorn: What were the circumstances under which they discovered the soil fungus that was to be used to make quorn? Were the researchers simply looking all around nearby natural environments close to their laboratory for stray cultures of mould? Where exactly did it come from, and where can i find this mould in nature today? Did they really study 3000+ fungi before selecting this particular fungus? Is there more of this fungi in the world today because it is being so intensively cultivated and examined in labs today?

Tempeh: How did the first tempeh get made? How were tempeh starter cultures consistently put together before western and japanese scientists started investigating it and meddling around with it? Was it really just some human leaving out some old beans and them getting infected with fungi and people discovering that mouldy soybean cake was tasty?

Huitlacoche: What was the motivation behind the first human who decided to eat huitlacoche? Why would anyone eat a horrific looking corn – driven to it by hunger or desperation or madness? Does the revolting appearance add to the frisson and people’s overall enjoyment of huitlacoche?