Anu Hopia: A Drop of Science in the Kitchen

Chemists in the Kitchen

What happens when chemists have the kitchen to themselves? Well, they’ll find out whether your granma was right when she told you to her secret tricks of the home cooking. At the Helsinki Book Fair Juha Roiha interviewed chemist, food lover and author Anu Hopia about the new book she’s written together with Erik Fooladi about their most recent discoveries in the Molecule Gastronomy Club. Anu Hopia told that the love of food of the two chemists was the reason for this book to be written. Food is so much more than just chemistry, food has so many roles in the human life.

Anu Hopia Helsnki Book Fair 2017

The experiments made for the book arouse from everyday situations. Anu Hopia says that Erik Fooladi wondered why all recipes tell to put fish on a hot pan. They tested it, and discovered that fish put on a cold pan and fried from there on, resulted in a crispier and juicier fish filets. But Anu Hopia is adamant to remind that they did not want to become teachers who tell others what they have to do. They just want to inspire curiosity towards cooking. She says that the greatest joy in the making of the book was to get results that would contradict their own expectations. For example, they tested whether a cake becomes fluffier if it is dropped down to a table from the height of 30 cm. They didn’t believe it would make a difference, but it did.

Chef Tatu Lehtovaara asked them whether salt travels uphill – in other words, if you marinate two fish filets on top of each other, will the top one receive equal amount of salt. Anu Hopia and Erik Fooladi experimented and noticed that the salt will travel uphill, but the water travels downhill – the bottom filet will swim in the marinating liquid and collect thus more salt than the top filet.

Some age-old tricks have essential effects on food. Like there is a firm reason for putting salt in the water when boiling pasta. Salt affects the structure of pasta, not just the taste. In fact, salt has many functions in food. It brings out the aromas. But it is possible to substitute salt with other ingredients. A drop of vinegar or citrus acid will create a salty taste. Another trick is to use aromas that you customarily associate with salty food. Then your mind will trick you into tasting salt in a food that doesn’t have it.

In addition to taste, other senses play a part in how we experience food. Feeling, hearing and smelling have a lot to do with how enjoyable a food is. And, of course, the visual element is crucial. In a test, where strawberry yoghurt was turned green, the test persons were not able to recognize its flavour by tasting.

Anu Hopia and Tatu Lehtovaara organize a Molecule Gastronomy Club in Helsinki with meetings once a month to test different chemistry inspired cooking problems and questions.