Samui Wining & Dining
Accept No Substitute
An irreverent look at what we’ve got up to in the past when the real thing wasn’t around.


Accept No SubstituteIt was just after the First World War began that James Lewis Kraft created his famous Kraft Cheese Slices. Well, to be exact, it was named ‘Kraft Processed Pasteurised Cheese Product’, which comes much closer to the truth. At this time Americans didn’t care much for cheese – it aged and spoiled quickly and there was a narrow gap between maturing and putrefying! But shred the cheese, boil it to kill the mould and bacteria, add sodium phosphate as an emulsifier, add powdered milk, whey proteins, food colourings, enzymes and artificial flavourings and you’ve got a ‘cheese’ that doesn’t go off. Sure, it’s got a texture half way between bee’s wax and putty, but it stays fresh for ages!


In truth this cheese, although radically modified, can’t be called ‘synthetic’ as it contains more than the 50% of the original product that the law demands – it’s actually cheese that’s been ‘processed’. But the story of margarine is a different one.


Originally created in France in 1869 this was another product born of wartime need. Emperor Napoleon III wanted a substitute for butter that was, “… suitable for the armed forces and lower classes.” By extracting the water from vegetable fat under pressure, then combining this with butyric acid and glycerol, the result was a synthetic and acceptable butter substitute. Unfortunately, it’s a disgusting grey-white colour that needs a splash of colouring to enhance its appearance. Subsequent outrage from the USA dairy industry in 1902 forced legislation to prevent margarine having this colour added, in the hope of restricting its appeal to the public. And, so, for decades margarine was sold in the USA with a separate capsule of yellow dye which had to be kneaded into the packet by hand. But it was cheap!


It’s in times of hardship or shortages that Man’s creative ingenuity rears its head and produces all sorts of food substitutes. And half of the time desperate situations call for desperate remedies, leading to no attempt to ‘synthesise’ anything at all! Take coffee, for instance. At various times throughout history it’s been faked-up from – wait for it – chicory root, acorns, almonds, asparagus, different grains, beechnuts, beetroot, carrot, corn, cottonseed, dandelion roots, figs, boiled-down molasses, peas, potato peel and the seeds of just about any fruit that are dark in colour!


But it’s the entire range of dairy products that comes up in first place. Powdered milk made from butter residue, and powdered eggs padded-out with baking soda are at the front of the queue. Margarine I’ve mentioned, and also cheese, but when it comes to truly synthetic butter that the Germans take first prize. In 1943, scientists in Essen developed a process which firstly reduced coal to coke. This was then processed to yield a synthetic paraffin. Edible fats were extracted from this and flavoured and coloured. And 23,000 tons of this ersatz butter was produced before the end of the war made this radical solution no longer necessary!


And, to top it all off, there’s been bread made of ground leaves, potato starch and sawdust – ersatzbrot; flour made from leaves; whipped cream from flour, water and sugar; and sweeteners from almost anything that tastes sweet, including flowers, leaves and fruit. And that’s not even going down the road of artificial sweeteners, like saccharin. Or exploring the conscientious objections of vegetarians and their dedication to Textured Vegetable Proteins, even though soya beans can be spun or woven to resemble the various textures of meat.


But hardship or deprivation aren’t the only reasons for Mankind’s search for synthetic nourishment. When the progress of science created opportunities for manned space flight, for example, a whole new bag of problems came with it. Such as, ‘What do we feed them on, and how?’. Early space-pioneers had to endure cubes of compressed fibre, freeze-dried powders, and pastes stuffed into aluminium tubes. And a glance at the ingredients reveals a catalogue of chemical compounds that would make sense only to a scientist. They did the trick but, boy, did they taste vile!


All of which is somewhat futuristic and quite literally half a million miles away from the rest of us down here on planet Earth. But it’s actually the future down here on the surface that’s beginning to worry quite a lot of us. As a race we seem to be chewing through our planet’s natural resources at an alarming rate. And what do we do when there are more people than food to go round?


One answer lies in our planet’s oceans. They’re teeming with plankton and algae, both of which are extremely high in protein. The French surgeon, Alain Bombard, is a leading advocate of plankton-based food, and has been able to fabricate quite convincing ‘fish steaks’ made entirely from plankton. Meat-based clones are more elusive, however, as whatever you do to plankton it still smells somewhat fishy!


And the same holds true of algae. It might provide nourishment but it doesn’t look or smell so good. Part of the problem is that right now we don’t actually need these things. Everyone is still aware that, at the end of the day, it is still essentially pond scum we’re chewing and no real substitute for a good bowl of tom yam soup – with or without plankton!


But in these kinder times we can forgive a little self indulgence, so let the last words be from Pierre Gagnaire. His Paris restaurant has attracted 3 Stars from Michelin and he’s at the cutting edge of today’s ‘Molecular Gastronomy’ movement. He’s been experimenting with a host of additives and chemicals in the cooking process to achieve particular results – Poached Chicken, Fried Mayonnaise, Spherical Olives and the like. And he’s now developed a series of dishes derived from synthetic sources. That is to say, rather than cooking carrots under pressure and reducing them to concentrate their beta carotenes, he’s simply starting with the synthetic carotenes and ‘building’ food from scratch.


It’s an interesting idea but one that, to me, doesn’t seem a million miles away from creating butter out of coal. I suppose as long as it’s edible ... But, thankfully, hopefully, the days of scarcity and need are a long way in the future. And all those steaks, seafood, curries and noodles – the real thing, that is – will still be with us on Samui for a long time to come!


Rob De Wet


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