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Culinary Forensics (draft)

December 8, 2012



In December 2012 the Center for Genomic Gastronomy participated in the Nomadic Science Hack Lab in Prague. We used our time in the lab to prototype methods for reverse engineer spice mixes such as masalas, Speculoos and KFC’s secret spice mix. One of our main inspirations was the lock-picking villages that appear at hacker conferences. We would love to create a similar collaborative/competitive environment for reverse engineering spice mixes.

photo by vnvlain

This lab was our first attempt at Culinary Forensics and we chose to work with spices because they are dry, and easier to separate than other food products. Also, spices are highly fungible. Spices can travel far. The spice trade is worth a lot of money. Spices are essential inputs for industrial food design. For all of these reasons we are researching spices. 


Culinary Forensics can be used to reverse engineer recipes or to identify the makeup of a food product. Even though recipes can not be copyrighted, they are not necessarily set down in writing and published. Sometimes chefs and food hackers just forget to share their research, or run out of time to document their recipes. Other times consumers are sold adulterated food or mislabeled fish. Culinary Forensics can help.

Non-published recipes can be lost when an individual dies or a kitchen closes. However, even in these cases they may leave behind some clues such as a pre-blended spice mix that someone finds. [ 1 ] Some culinary exclusivists have attempted to close access to recipes by intentionally keeping them a secret or by trying to obtain a patent rather than a copyright. [ 2 ] 

Creating an open source Culinary Forensics Kit could be useful in the move towards an open (food) culture. Although there are for-profit food reverse-engineering companies, our goal is to create free and open methods and tools.

image source: Einat Peled


Spices are traded on a planetary scale. The edible genomes that were propagated globally during the Columbian Exchange (potato, corn,  sweet potato, chili, tomato, tobacco, chocolate) may have had a more disruptive effect on agriculture and political economy, but the global spice trade paved the way. (The book “1493” provides a good summary). Potato, Corn and Sweet Potato spread across the planet because they are agronomically robust genomes that can produce calories and (some) nutrients on marginal and disrupted land.

The global flows of spice that preceded the Columbian Exchange and continue to this day provided something more amorphous: exotic tastes, smells and powerful flavor experiences. Chili, chocolate, cinnamon and nutmeg go straight to our head.

It is amazing to think that until the mid-19th century the Banda Islands were the world’s only source of the spices nutmeg and mace, produced from the nutmeg tree. [ 3 ] These spices are now accessible in any urban market on the planet and  “It could be argued that the world—at least, that part of it that doesn’t fear starvation—is eating more alike than it has since the Middle Ages.” (The Taste of Conquest)

The internationalization of chili, tomato and potato and the spread of spices means that mankind is now Eating in the Homogenocene. Food moves slightly slower than writing, video and audio around our planetary networks, but not much slower. 


Spices are a form of culinary compression. Large amounts of potent smell and flavor information can be transmitted great distances in the form of spices. “There would be no demand for Indian pepper in medieval Europe if the berries weren’t light and non-perishable to be shipped.” (TOC) Spices are one of the most fungible food products in the world. There are different grades of spices for specialty markets, but most eaters are not aware or picky about the provenance of their spices. The global taste for spice continues to increase, paralleling a rise in processed food which is increasingly well-spiced. Between 1961 – 1994, the volume of spices imported into the U.S. increased by 400% and doubled again in the next decade. (TOC)


“A food manufacturer doesn’t want a truckload of ginger; they want a containerload of a ready-made flavoring mixture. Enter McCormick: the flavor company.”(TOC) Companies like McCormick shape and then capitalize on changing taste preferences, mellowing exotic flavors for domestic markets, and creating entire corporate cuisines which can be dropped anywhere in the world without regard to ecology, season or tradition. Spices are closer to pure information than most other foods.


KFC spice mix is a McCormick product.(TOC) In part the CFK project was inspired by the high security and secrecy that surround the Kentucky Fried Chicken spice mix. The article “KFC Hires Armed BodyGuards to Protect 11 Herbs & Spices Recipe” explains: 

Pssst. The secret’s out at KFC. Well, sort of. Colonel Harland Sanders’ handwritten recipe of 11 herbs and spices was to be removed Tuesday from safekeeping at KFC’s corporate offices for the first time in decades. The temporary relocation is allowing KFC to revamp security around a yellowing sheet of paper that contains one of the country’s most famous corporate secrets.

The brand’s top executive admitted his nerves were aflutter despite the tight security he lined up for the operation.

“I don’t want to be the president who loses the recipe,” KFC President Roger Eaton said. “Imagine how terrifying that would be.”

So important is the 68-year-old concoction that coats the chain’s Original Recipe chicken that only two company executives at any time have access to it. The company refuses to release their name or title, and it uses multiple suppliers who produce and blend the ingredients but know only a part of the entire contents.

But in the process of marketing the pseudo event of moving the recipe, the company provided this image:

Assuming it is accurate most of the handwork is done for reverese engineering the mix. We already know the number and color of each of the 11 spices. Other foodhackers have gone before us.

Once mechanically separated taste, sight and smell can be employed to identify the ingredients. In cases where that is impossible, other physical and chemical and biological diagnostic tools (chromatography, etc.) can be developed, and added to a growing tool kit for a more general Culinary Forensics that goes beyond spice mixes.


WindUp Girl. . . .

There is an argument to be made for Open Source biotechnology that goes something like this: The (biotech) genie is out of the bottle. Better that many individuals and institutions have access to the tools of biotechnology. It may surprise many readers that even Michael Pollan has made this argument!

1. Ideologically we want science and industry to be open and transparent endeavors, and if Biotech is not going away, it needs at least be open, testable and verifiable by many minds.

2. Both science and industrial practitioners have used the metaphor of biotechnology as being like computer code. Extending this metaphor means that we would want a large and distributed network of biohackers checking code, and ready to respond in the case of an emergency.

However, what will this practice look like? How will non-institutional actors take apart biological designs in order to understand and reshape them? The Institute of the Future gives one scenario in their recent report on food:

“The open-source movement of Brazil latches onto the idea of open-source food and reverse engineering of proprietary new formulations. Food hacker collectives emanate from universities and supply much of the world with ideas for new foods.”[3]  

* * * * * *


[ 1 ] In the autumn of 2012 one person emailed us and asked if the Center for Genomic Gastronomy could help her find out what was in a spice blend that Grandma left behind. At the time we didn’t have the tools, so we realized we would need to discover or create the tools to do so.

[ 2 ] For a pro-exclusivist / closed-culture perspective on intellectual property and recipes see: New Era of the Recipe Burglars by Pete Wells 


[2] It is also horrific to learn about how those particular spices entered the world market. The absolute despotism of the Dutch East India company in the Spice Islands is recounted in grim detail in Part 3 of The Taste of Conquest.

[3] This particular narrative seems to emphasize chemical over biological analysis and creation, but no specific details are given. (What does the IFTF think is in the refill cartridges of 3-D food printers? Bacteria hacked to spit out different flavors? If not that I would assume an extrudable substrate with lots of tubes of spices and essential oils.). Here is a bit more detail: 


“In Africa and Latin America, community groups are investing in shared food printers. By 2021, hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs all over the world have established businesses selling downloadable recipes that work with 3D printers for everything from snacks to entire meals. Known as Food Gurus, these tinkerers have remade food consumption in the same way that social media and bloggers transformed the media landscape in the 2000s. The frequency with which people eat out at restaurants has plummeted, and so have sales of most packaged foods and drinks (although food companies were quick to provide downloadable recipes of their own).”


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