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Waiter, There’s a Cricket in my Soy Sauce!

Waiter, There’s a Cricket in my Soy Sauce!

Japanese haute cuisine restaurant Antcicada has long practiced the bugs-as-food philosophy that we’ve been looking at recently. Foodies rave about their cricket ramen, made with two kinds of local crickets, in which “[n]oodles, sauces and oils were also developed […] to express the charm of crickets in various ways.” At their new permanent Tokyo location, you can even wash down the umami-rich soup with their in-house cricket beer! 
 
Antcicada is now poised to reach even further into Japanese cuisine with a new collaboration with traditional miso manufacturer Noda Miso Co.: a “soy” sauce that has no soy in it at all, but instead uses as its base — three guesses — crickets! Noda Miso president Yoshinari Noda came up with the idea after developing cricket miso five years ago, after a student in one of his miso-making classes asked if it was possible.
 
“Noda, an avid traveler who had tried insects overseas, found the bugs rich in protein, like soybeans. […]

The two-spotted cricket, which has a ‘strong savory and aromatic flavor,’ and the house cricket, characterized by its ‘delicate and elegant taste,’ were used.

The crickets were provided by a start-up company in Tokushima Prefecture and another Japanese company.

The insects were pulverized into powder and treated with rice malt and salt in wooden buckets at Noda Miso Syoten. No soybeans were used in the production.

‘The flavor makes a difference,’ said Noda, referring to the finished soy sauce. ‘I cannot come up with any good descriptions of the flavor other than “cricket-like,” but it resembles that of nam pla and other kinds of fish sauce.’”
 
As we’ve seen in this space before, much is being made of crickets and insects as a protein alternative to meat. But Antcicada and Noda Miso’s collab is the first time I’ve seen flavour as the main selling point. It’s an interesting (and to me, far more appealing) approach! I wonder how long we’ll wait before that attitude — and possibly this soy sauce — make it to our shores?

Scotch Eggs and What Makes a Meal

Scotch Eggs

Much like a local dive bar who obeys liquor laws by keeping a dusty package of Miss Vickie’s behind the counter, UK pubs are getting creative in order to reopen after the end of their most recent lockdown. According to the law, a pub must be able to serve a “substantial meal” along with the pints of cask ale that form the usual menu. The trick is, many of these establishments don’t have kitchens, instead of serving light, cold foods or bar snacks, which means they must stay closed. This is bad news for the livelihoods of the folks who run these quintessentially British establishments.
 
To help their publican constituents, Conservative ministers are attempting to define the classic pub nosh, the scotch egg, as an official “substantial meal.” As a result, manufacturers of the sausage-and-breadcrumb-covered soft-boiled eggs are struggling to keep up with the sudden demand. In some markets, ten times the usual number of orders are coming in as the debate rages on. From The Guardian:
 
“[Gourmet scotch egg company] Happy Belly normally produces about 10,000 scotch eggs a week, said [owner Brendan] Baury. This week he has made 15,000 following a huge increase in enquiries from new customers, particularly kitchenless pubs. […]

Images and repeated discussions about scotch eggs on the news have also helped to drive up sales by putting the old-fashioned delicacy front and centre of people’s minds this week, according to Peter Nutt, who runs Nutts Scotch Eggs in Weston-super-Mare. ‘I think there was subliminal advertising going on. If you hear the phrase “scotch egg” mentioned enough times, it gets into your consciousness.’”
 
There’s a lot of fun British food out there; I’m glad this unique local snack is rising above the rest and bringing home the bacon for the UK’s small businesses. Whether or not this nosh qualifies as a “meal” is just semantics!

Candy Technology Sweetens New Mask Development

mask technology using cotton candy technology

Just in time for National Cotton Candy Day!: A physicist from OIST University in Okinawa has repurposed a trusty piece of fairground culinary equipment — the humble cotton candy spinner — into an inexpensive, quick, and effective method of manufacturing N95 filters for respirators. N95s are the most effective anti-COVID masks, filtering 95% of viruses breathed into or out of the wearer. This comes from the filter material’s non-woven nature, and its electrostatic charge; both features which make it tricky and slow to produce, leading to shortages. Enter Mahesh Bandi, with his MacGyvered method!
 
First, Bandi heated common plastics, like those from water bottles, as the “sugar base” analogue in the cotton candy process. Then he loaded the cotton candy machine hopper with this material, and spun the liquified plastic into a complex matrix of threads, making a mesh. The spinning process already electrostatically charged the textile a bit; Bandi later charged it fully by holding it next to an air ionizer vent. And voila: an N95-quality filter created with the ease of a county fair snack!
 
“Bandi tested his filters by placing several inside of surgical masks. He found the filters worked very well, but the masks were not a viable option. He then designed his own mask to allow easy insertion and removal of the filters (each mask requires three) and used a 3-D printer to produce the result. Rigorous testing (which included microscopic inspections and comparisons with N95 filters) showed the filters to be as effective at preventing inhalation of SARS-CoV-2 viruses as standard N95-type respirators.”
 
Bandi has published his results in Proceedings of the Royal Society A; with no plans to mass manufacture these filters himself, he hopes by offering his research, another organization with greater resources can pick up the baton. Here’s hoping this fascinating and deliciously simple technique gets wider use and helps with potential mask shortages — with the winter we’re expecting, we’re going to need all the innovation we can get.

Bugs on the Menu for Man’s Best Friends

While we in North America remain squeamish, other parts of the world have long boasted tasty traditions of insect-based cuisine. Over here, food innovators have been laying the groundwork for the adoption of crickets, mealworms, and grasshoppers as an alternative protein for a while now, but progress is slow.
 
At least in the human food department: Purina, a sub-brand of (the still problematic) Nestlé is piloting a dog and cat food line that features chicken, fava beans, and black soldier fly larvae. (A second flavour — chicken, pig liver, and millet, is bug free.)
 
This is in response to a general consumer pivot to more environmentally friendly protein options. Meat production is a stunningly resource-heavy undertaking, and the methane that is a byproduct of cow digestion is a big contributor to climate change. Farming insects for food could popularize a low-impact protein source for both humans and their furry friends.
 
“Purina also plans to offer U.S. consumers an insect-based dry dog formula in January online, Lorie Westhoff, a Purina spokeswoman said. It will be rolled out along with several other formulas using protein alternatives, like the invasive Asian carp, she said. […]

Nestlé doesn’t have an estimate on the potential environmental impact of switching pets to a bug-based diet yet, the company told NPR. But they said they ‘generally see the need to diversify sources of protein in food for a variety of reasons, including environmental goals such as fighting climate change and protecting biodiversity.’”
 
As a dog owner and a foodie, I look forward to further developments in bug-based pet foods with interest. However, as a human, I’ll take anything Nestlé says it’s doing to be a moral entity with a giant grain of salt. Maybe I can learn from this industry change, and incorporate insects into the homemade food we cook up for our liege, Samson? Though he may be too picky; instead, I may have more luck flipping the script — and perhaps a burger with some of our sauce — and starting with us!

Longer Living Through Spice: Collating the Health Benefits of Heat

Peppers+assortment_0f7704af-e9f5-421d-86d7-f79738cb41bb-prv

At the risk of becoming an all-chili-pepper, all-the-time newsletter, I’m bringing you more news this week from the capsaicin front. (Maybe it’s the wintery weather? I’m subconsciously seeking out all sources of heat…?)

A new study points to spicy pepper consumption as an overall mortality reducer, especially from cardiovascular or cancer-related causes. This study is the first-time chili’s blood-glucose-reducing, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties have been looked at in concert, amalgamating the results of nearly 5000 (!) previous studies to create a bigger picture.

“The health and dietary records of more than 570,000 individuals in the United States, Italy, China and Iran were used to compare the outcomes of those who consumed chili pepper to those who rarely or never ate chili pepper. Compared to individuals who rarely or never ate chili pepper, the analysis found that people who ate chili pepper had:  

  • a 26% relative reduction in cardiovascular mortality;
  • a 23% relative reduction in cancer mortality; and
  • a 25% relative reduction in all-cause mortality.”

These rates of reduction are stunning and immediately left me wanting to know more. But the study’s lead author, cardiologist Dr Bo Xu, says that this data is only a tantalizing taste (pun intended) of possible dietary influences of heart health and cancer prevention. In particular, future studies need to regularize exact amounts and type of chili peppers that net results, as well as other variables like study participant health info. Doing this will narrow down the “why” of chili’s effect on human health.

So, while the researchers work on their data and a final paper, I’ll kill the time by thinking about incorporating chili pepper into my diet more. While I still maintain I have nothing to prove in the spice-withstanding department, I’m happy to take a little heat for some potential health payoff. Maybe once my tolerance is up, the results will be in!

Brouhaha Boils Over Borscht Beginnings

Soup season is coming for us! The colder temps and shorter days have prompted me to haul out my giant pot and start simmering some of my family’s favourites. (Not to toot my own horn, but my classic chicken soup is legendary.)
 
Soup is the great unifier: Not only do most individual humans like it, but every culture boasts its own unique bowls of goodness.
 
Especially Ukraine; or, so says chef Ievgen Klopotenko. The Kyiv restauranteur and TV host bristles at the longstanding Russian claim to borscht, which he believes to be a dish of Ukrainian origin. He is so passionate about the issue that he has founded a non-profit and brought in the big guns — UNESCO — to claim borscht for his own country, rather than a powerful state that still represents the culturally homogenizing USSR.
 
“After months of research to back up his claim, Klopotenko says his application is now supported by the Ukrainian government.

This, despite that the Russian Foreign Ministry tweeted last year that borscht is the country’s ‘most famous and beloved dishes.’

But Klopotenko wants to be clear that he is not looking to stir up his country’s already tense relationship with Russia over the dish. Since 2014, more than 13,000 people have been killed in Ukraine’s battle against Kremlin-supported militants in the country’s east, according to the Washington Post.

‘It’s not about fighting. It’s about how it is — that this dish is ours. It’s not Russian,’ Klopotenko said. ‘But Russians, they want to take that because they think that there is no such nation as Ukrainians.’”
 
Though this dispute seems small, it is symbolically huge, mixing ingredients like national identity, autonomy, and sovereignty in the simmering pot of international relations. But Klopotenko isn’t losing sight of the uniting force of soup. He believes that staking a Ukrainian claim in this small, tasty way, might serve to ease tensions between the two countries. (He also provides tips on what to look for in an authentic borscht: A sweet-sour balance and the inclusion of kvass, or fermented beet juice, for depth of flavour!)
I am inspired both politically and culinarily by Klopotenko’s quest. The latter is easier to respond to: The least I can do is try out an authentic borscht recipe, and see how we like it. Good thing my giant pot is still out and ready…!

Chili Sensing Device Can Take the Heat — Instead of Your Mouth

chili shaped plug-in

I am wary of spicy foods. I’m not like those competitive Carolina-Reaper-eating maniacs; I have nothing to prove. I like a little bit of heat, but not so much it becomes an impediment to enjoying my dinner, rather than an enhancement. The problem with spice though is that it’s subjective — and once you tuck into that vindaloo, or taco, or mapo tofu, you are well past the point of no return.
 
Well, a team from Prince of Songkla University in Thailand (a country well-experienced in spicy cuisine) is here to save the cautious among us! They have invented an adorable widget that plugs into a smartphone, which can assess capsaicin levels of samples dropped into it, instantly. Shaped like a classic red chili, the portable device uses a paper sensor to soak up the chili pepper or food sample, and turn around a result that is then displayed on the smartphone screen. The technology behind this invention is tiny and fascinating. From the American Chemical Society:
 
“The paper-based electrochemical sensor within the device consisted of graphene nanoplatelets doped with nitrogen atoms to improve their electrical conductivity. When the team added a drop of diluted capsaicin to the sensor, the compound underwent oxidation and reduction reactions, producing an electrical current that the device detected. After optimizing the sensor, the researchers used it to determine capsaicin concentrations in six dried chili samples.”
 
The team focussed on portability, ease of use, and low cost. (While other capsaicin sensors do exist, they are too bulky and expensive to bring to the dinner table with you.) For me, this invention is a game-changer: no more guessing, tip-of-the-tongue-testing, or trying to decipher what the waiter really means by “medium.” Unfortunately, there’s no word yet on a commercial rollout of this device, but I await it with bated — and fiery — breath!

The Human Sweet Tooth and our Ancient Brain

human sweets

Finally, a scientific reason why I keep forgetting that bag of carrots in the back of my fridge until they turn into a mouldy, noodley tangle! Researchers at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands have shown one particular way in which humans have retained our “Stone age brains”: We are hardwired to remember the locations of calorie-dense foods far more accurately than “lighter” foods. Bye-bye, carrot sticks; hello carrot cake.
 
The study involved 512 participants, who were each guided through a room where the researchers had planted eight samples of actual foods or eight food scents (on cotton pads). The participants smelled the foods or food scents, and then rated them by how appealing they found them. Half of each kind of sample were high calorie (like brownies and potato chips), and half were low calorie (like apples and cherry tomatoes). When the participants were later asked to point out the samples on a map of the room, they were 30% more accurate at recalling the locations of the high-calorie samples — and 243% more accurate when the foods were real, instead of just scents.
 
“‘Our main takeaway message is that human minds seem to be designed for efficiently locating high-calorie foods in our environment,’ says Rachelle de Vries, a Ph.D. candidate in human nutrition and health at Wageningen University and lead author of the new paper. De Vries feels her team’s findings support the idea that locating valuable caloric resources was an important and regularly occurring problem for early humans weathering the climate shifts of the Pleistocene epoch. ‘Those with a better memory for where and when high-calorie food resources would be available were likely to have a survival — or fitness — advantage,’ she explains.”
 
Once upon a Pleistocene, this cool talent saved our bacon. But there is a downside for today’s humans. For those of us lucky enough to live where sugar and fat are readily available, the ancient instinct to zero in on it and eat as much as possible (lest we not find another source for months, or get gored by a mammoth tomorrow) is a contributing factor to the modern scourges of obesity and diabetes. Retraining our brains in a habit that is so deeply ingrained may not be possible — so I plan to rely on my frontal lobe writing me a sticky note on my fridge, that just says “CARROTS.” Once remembered, whether or not I eat them is another story…!
 

Black Licorice: The Silent Killer?

black licorice

With Halloween approaching, DFC’s staff fancies are lightly turning to thoughts of… CANDY! We’ll likely be keeping the traditional bowl by the front door to ourselves though, as celebrations all over are in upheaval because of COVID-19. (Besides, given our rural location, we probably wouldn’t be handing out the good stuff to the assorted Black Panthers and mermaids and Baby Yodas hoping to score big anyway.)
 
Which may be a good thing, given news that has come out about a particular type of candy’s very particular type of lethality. A 54-year-old construction worker in Massachusetts died last month after consuming his favourite sweet, black licorice, at the staggering rate of “a bag and a half every day for a few weeks.” According to doctors, the man’s heart stopped due to an arrhythmia caused by low potassium — the direct result of consuming an excess of glycyrrhizic acid. Glycyrrhizic acid comes from licorice root, which can be used in a variety of foods, both obvious, and scarily not.
 
“‘It’s more than licorice sticks. It could be jelly beans, licorice teas, a lot of things over the counter. Even some beers, like Belgian beers, have this compound in it,” as do some chewing tobaccos, said Dr. Robert Eckel, a University of Colorado cardiologist and former American Heart Association president. He had no role in the Massachusetts man’s care. […]
 
The FDA permits up to 3.1% of a food’s content to have glycyrrhizic acid, but many candies and other licorice products don’t reveal how much of it is contained per ounce, [cardiologist Dr. Neel] Butala said. Doctors have reported the case to the FDA in hope of raising attention to the risk.”
 
Black licorice is loved and hated, and the fate of the unfortunate Massachusetts fan has only rendered the treat’s reputation even more complicated. This Halloween, remember to enjoy everything in moderation — and when in doubt about your candy tastes, check with a doctor!

A (Subway) Bread by Any Other Name Would Taste as Sweet

bread

I have a stumper for you: When is a sandwich bread not a sandwich bread? When the Supreme Court of Ireland rules it’s too sugary for that title, that’s when!
 
Jokes aside, this is not a thought experiment — the highest judicial body of an already starch-knowledgeable nation has come down hard on Subway (the sandwich chain) for the sugar content of their bread. Interestingly, it has nothing to do with nutrition but is rather a confusing tussle over taxes.
 
It involves an exemption of Value-Added Tax (a different name for what we know as GST) that an Irish Subway franchisee requested. The franchisee, Bookfinders Ltd. cited the fact that bread is considered to be a staple food in Ireland, and because of that, their hot takeout sandwiches (of which bread is a key component, naturally) should not be subject to VAT. The Supreme Court countered with the judicial zinger that Subway’s bread had so much sugar it could not be legally defined as “bread,” so couldn’t be tax-exempt.
 
“[T]he judges ruled that Subway’s bread is not a staple food because its sugar content is 10 percent of the weight of the flour in the dough; the Value-Added Tax Act 1972 stipulates that sugar, fat, and ‘bread improver’ cannot add up to more than 2 percent of the weight of the flour. (Those limits are in place to prevent things like pastries and other sweet baked goods from being labeled as ‘staple foods’ and exempt from being taxed.)

Justice Donal O’Donnell dismissed Bookfinders’ appeal on Tuesday, although he did acknowledge that some of the arguments presented on their behalf were ‘ingenious.’ An Appeal Commissioner also said that Subway’s hot sandwiches were not eligible for a zero-percent tax rate, so Bookfinders was doubly denied.”
 
I remember the first time Subway had trouble with the contents of its bread: Back in 2014, the scientifically-questionable “Food Babe” blogger, Vani Hari took them to task for using the dough conditioner azodicarbonamide (ADA) in their buns because ADA was also used in yoga mats and shoe soles. While the ADA flap caused Subway to drop the ingredient from their bread recipe, I doubt they will revisit the sugar content today, to benefit one tax-objecting franchisee. Besides, if Subway bread is too sweet to be “bread,” it follows that it must be… cake? A pivot to Subway cakewiches would be “ingenious” indeed!