As the newest member of the Center for Genomic Gastronomy (CGG), my Dubai visit was indeed an amazing welcome into my journey with the CGG. On the day of the travel, my anxiety was not helping me. Having slept for only a few hours, I got ready for an early flight. It was an unusual start I should say, for a number of reasons.
My dad offered to drop me at the Chennai International airport, and gave me a good pep talk before bidding goodbye, which doesn’t happen that often. Also I was upgraded to business class for free on Emirates Airlines, which doesn’t happen that commonly. Travelling to Dubai on business class was not exactly what I envisioned for my journey as an artist. It was indeed an unusual start to my travel and my journey with CGG.
So that’s how my journey to Dubai began with some champagne, good food and a very good sleep that I had missed the previous night. So with that my excitement overtook the anxiety on reaching Dubai. I quickly checked in to the hotel and moved to the venue to check the exhibition for the final corrections before the opening night.
The venue was all set for the big night. We quickly made a few changes and the chef’s team were right on time to put the food out for the incoming guests. I trained as an Architect and Designer so public speaking was not my main strength. But Thanks to Catherine Flood, curator from V&A and Yasmeen Sabri, our design coordinator from Alserkal Avenue I slowly got the hang of it and prepared myself for the following days.
An important learning moment, during the event was my conversation with Catherine Flood. On the first day of the event we were to render a talk to the public on how the New National Dish: UAE exhibition came into life. In preparation for the talk we had a very good conversation on how the V&A exhibition “Food Bigger than the Plate” was setup, the challenges faced, and sacrifices made.
The exhibitions at V&A and New National Dish UAE were attempting to change how exhibits in Museums and Galleries were experienced. As an amateur artist it was an eye opener to experience it first-hand. A lot of people who came in were surprised when they were told that they could eat the food in the exhibits. It was lovely interacting with the visitors, looking at the exhibition through their eyes and experiencing it in very new perspectives. Some of them left me with very intriguing questions.
Some of the visitors were confused by the signage and thought that the New National dish was the burger joint right next to the venue. Which actually wouldn’t be that far-off, since a prominent Emirati told us, “the unofficial national dish of the UAE is probably hamburger sliders”.
Alserkal Avenue put up an amazing show for the Al Quoz fest 2020. The event was teeming with artists and good food. Their in-house team is very enthusiastic and passionate. The piece was a particularly good match for their series of tours for visually impaired visitors.
On the last day I had the chance to have breakfast at the eL Seed studio, cooked by the artist himself. It was an amazing opportunity to see all the artists in the same room and share Shakshuka with them. Thanks to the team at The Center for Genomic Gastronomy for this incredible opportunity. Looking forward to where the next New National Dish would take me.
From January 9 — 19, 2020 two researchers from the Center for Genomic Gastronomy traveled to the UAE and China for site visits and food research. Below is a summary of the trip, with additional writings about the food research to follow.
In the UAE we were completing research for the New National Dish project and in China we explored the Shunde district, which fittingly has been a UNESCO “City of Gastronomy” since 2014.
From the very start of the trip geopolitical and historical events seemed to swirl around each stop, but never fully derailed the progress of the trip itself.
A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT FLIGHT PATH
Even before the researchers took off from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport on January 9th we got the sense that this trip might be taking some unexpected turns—the pilot came on to announce “today we will be taking a slightly different flight path than usual.” Yup.
Flight paths in and out of the region were adjusted accordingly, and we wondered how the events would impact our interlocutors in the Emirates and what the mood on the ground would be. However, upon arriving in Dubai any geopolitical tensions seemed overshadowed by the enormous rains and flooding that were taking place.
As one of our interviewees attested “Anytime there is tension or instability in the region, money and people flood into the UAE. The wealthy send their savings and their families for safety in the UAE, and we benefit financially.” This interviewee had a business that was struggling at the time due to the softening of the Emerati economy, and certainly saw the irony of him benefiting from these tensions, but the man-made rain was an immediate concern.
A VERY RAINY DAY IN DUBAI
We drove from the airport to our hotel in a taxi, and had the very unusual experience of heavy rain the entire ride. It only rains a handful of days in Dubai, and we had thought we left the we weather with us back in Europe.
However, we were even more shocked to wake up to rain each day that were were in Dubai. The streets were flooded, traffic crawled and many of our site visits to farms had to be canceled because we would not be able to make it to the sites and back due to the flooding and traffic.
We spoke to market vendors, restaurant owners and other people who uniformly seemed to believe that all this rain was a result of state-sponsored cloud seeding programs.
While we have done research on cloud seeding and weather modification in our own work, we were not expecting that to be the research topic while we were in Dubai. There was some sense that cloud seeding was tied to the government’s desire for water security and food security, but that this might come at the expense of the dominant tourist economy.
These tensions played out right before our eyes in fairly dramatic ways, as the ceiling tiles fell from our hotel lobby and hallways, and water damage pervaded most parts of the building. Dubai’s pop-up city wasn’t designed to be buffered against massive rains and flooding.
As we sat in the unflooded Dubai International Airport (DXB) on January 12th, 2020 we began reading breaking news articles about the Taal Volcano eruption in the Philippines, which was causing evacuations and cancelled flights within the region.
We took off on our flight from DXB to CAN and the additional volcanic activity that occurred had mostly local effects and our flight was not diverted. Volcanoes and cancelled flights are significant for our research Center, because our founders initially met while they were in Spain, expecting to possibly be stranded for days or weeks with the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland.
CULINARY PARANOIA ON THE RISE
We landed in the Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport (CAN) on January 12th, and began our site visits the next day. One of our first site visits was to an open air fish, poultry and vegetable market. It is common during our research to visit markets as well as farms and kitchens, but we entered the market this time with a slight bit of apprehension. The Wuhan coronavirus outbreak was just starting to be reported on in the days before our arrival, and it was clear that the initial outbreak centered on the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which sold live animals. Additionally, a few cases of symptomatic people were reported in Guangdong. Because this was all occurring during the Chinese New Years celebration when many people return to their families and criss cross the country, the risks for a pandemic or just general level of confusion and fear were heightened.
As we chatted to the vendors at various market stalls we began to wonder what kind of animal may have caused the virus to jump into humans. We primarily focus our energies on plant-based food research, but on that day in particular, the fruit and vegetable stalls seemed like the preferable places to look, touch and taste. One of our ongoing research threads are various forms of Culinary Paranoia that emerge in the global food system, and this was an example of us witnessing and participating in an emergent unease about the purity, health or safety of food, without having much in the way of details, facts or methods of verification.
We returned to Europe on January 19th, 2020, just four days before Wuhan province was put in quarantine. As of this writing the local and international impacts of the outbreak are still underway, but it seems likely that this event will have some consequences for the level of culinary paranoia across the planet.
The people we met, the food we tasted and our on-the-ground experience was amazing, and we are immensely grateful to our hosts and interlocutors. However, history was making some pretty strange gestures in the background the entire time.
On November 9th, 2019 the Center for Genomic Gastronomy will install the Smog Tasting project in Hong Kong City Hall. Citizens will be able to taste and compare a range of smog meringues collected from around the city considering the flavors, ingredients, and composition of Hong Kong’s atmospheric taste of place.
Since 2011 we have been studying Aeroir (the unique atmospheric taste of place) in various locations around the planet.
In Hong Kong we will be using the methodology of Smog Tasting: Take Out — local volunteers use Smog Tasting Kits to capture their neighborhood’s smog in the batter of meringue cookies.
These neighborhood Smog Harvesters will then bake and send a batch of smog meringues to Hong Kong City Hall where citizens can taste and compare a range of smog meringues asking:
— What is in Hong Kong smog, and what does taste like in 2019?
— What are the current smog conditions and how do industry, energy production, transportation, commerce and even civil unrest contribute?
— Have recent actions, including the extensive use of tear gas, changed the composition and flavour of the air in the short term?
— In the slightly longer term, has Hong Kong (and the planet) begun to reach peak pollution, and what would a future of clean (and less pungent) air require?
HONG KONG SMOG: A SHORT HISTORY
It isn’t uncommon for the world-famous skyline of Hong Kong to be obstructed by smog. On January 22, 2018, thick smog covered Victoria Harbour. According to National Geographic’s reporting, “Every monitoring station in Hong Kong reported dangerously bad air (…) particulate matter levels on January 22 hit eight times the acceptable maximum. Officials warned children, elderly, and those with heart or lung problems to stay inside.”
As we are writing this in late October 2020, the air quality across Hong Kong is considered “unhealthy” according to Air Quality Index standards and citizens are advised to “limit prolonged outdoor exertion”.
WHAT’S IN MY SMOG?
Air pollution is composed of several ingredients mixing together under UV sunlight.
The main three ingredients of air pollution are typically: 1) “PM (particulate matter) 2) NoX (nitrogen dioxide or nitric oxide), and 3) SO2 (Sulphur dioxide) which are all produced by different factors.
Four major contributors to Hong Kong’s smog are: A)coal-based power stations B) local motorvehicletraffic (Hong Kong has one of the highest vehicle densities of any city in the world) C)marineemissions from large ships coming to and from its ports and D)pollutiondrifting over from mainland China
Hong Kong has one of the busiest ports in the world, and along with its neighboring cities in the Pearl River Delta zone, these ports create a lot of dangerous air pollution. Large container ships and cruise ships which use sulphur fuel actually create more pollution than road vehicles. To mitigate Sulfur Dioxide pollution, Hong Kong introduced a law that required ships to switch to a low sulfur fuel when mooring in the city. As a result, concentrations of sulphur in air pollution went down 30% to 50% in 2016.
Over 50% of Hong Kong’s energy is generated by burning Coal. Most of Hong Kong’s energy inputs are imported, with coal usually coming from Indonesia. Hong Kong does use alternative energy sources, like very small scale wind power, but use is quite minimal in the scheme of total energy production. Most energy is consumed for domestic use (52.3%) followed closely by commercial use (41.9%). When coal is burned it releases heavy metals pollutants into the air as well as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter.
TEAR GAS: A NEW FLAVOUR
But what are the other unique tasting notes of Hong Kong Smog? With the recent protests and police conflicts, the flavor of tear gas is a new ingredient in the aerior of Hong Kong. According a report by Buzzfeed, “The most common type of tear gas used today — and the one that’s filled the streets of Hong Kong — is known as CS, or chlorobenzalmalononitrile”. Though The Chemical Weapons Convention banned tear gas for war, it categorizes CS as a riot-control agents and not a chemical weapons. CS is created by an American company called Nonlethal Technologies and exported to the world.
According to multiple reports, police fired over 1800 rounds of tear gas by August 2019 in Hong Kong. At one point launching 800 rounds in a single day. Even though CS is common, its effects are not well understood. Sven-Eric Jordt from Duke University School of Medicine said, “I’m very concerned that we’re underestimating the toxicity, especially when it’s fired in these more dense cities like Cairo and Hong Kong” Although there are guidelines — such as not firing tear gas indoors — it’s impossible to say how well enforced they are…There’s no rules that these companies insist on once the products leave the US.”
CS burns and irritates, often leaving victims coughing until they vomit, but how long does it linger in the air? Are its peppery overtones what you notice when you taste the smog in Hong Kong?
WE ARE WHAT WE BREATH
In 2015 the Center for Genomic Gastronomy and CoClimate partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO) and World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to create the exhibition BREATHE which featured a version of Smog Tasting.
The show took place on the opening evening of the High Level Assembly of the Climate and Clean Air Delegation meeting and was designed to engage delegates on the matters of particulate air pollution and its impacts on health. The show traveled to the WHO Library and then COP21 in Paris and was specifically used to highlight connections between air pollution, climate, and health, which there was a general lack of awareness around. In Hong Kong, awareness of the vast array of health issues related with smog is still fairly low.
Coronary heart disease and stroke, as well as skin problems, respiratory issues, and even mental health have all been linked to air pollution. Most people do not take action based on the advice of Air Quality Index readings, and carry on their daily activities as normal. Additionally, local people often compare the quality Hong Kong’s air to other large cities in China rather than the rest of the world, making it seem fairly normal rather than unsafe or unhealthy. In fact, while many countries and cities are becoming less polluted across the planet, others, like Hong Kong, seem to get even worse. Why is this?
Have some nations or cities already reached peak pollution? Are we at a point where things can really only get better? The US, UK, Western Europe and even Mexico have seen a decrease in PM 2.5 pollution, while China, India and Northern Africa have increased.
Is this because some zones are “cleaning up”, installing alternative energy systems, reducing waste, minimizing pollution with better technologies? Or is it because some of us are outsourcing our pollution to neighbors nearby or across the world? Who has control of the means of pollution production anyways?
TASTE FOR YOURSELF
Smog Tasting: Take Out will be on display from November 9 – 17 at Hong Kong City Hall as part of the Microwave Festival. We will taste and compare smog from these 4 – 6 locations, considering the flavors, ingredients, and composition of the Hong Kong’s taste of place.
Last week we the Center participated as speakers and artists in the Conjectural Futures Conference, a two-day event around foresight and forecasting in Berlin.
The conference session, “(Inter-)planetary Conjectures” focused on how we will live on and with our planet in the future. The Center gave a talk about our work, specifically looking at the ways we use food as a mechanism for forecasting and creating new images of the future to debate and discuss. We focussed on two projects in specific: New National Dish: Portugal and LOCI Food Lab.
Between sessions, the Center hosted a pop-up LOCI Food Lab performance, where visitors could choose from a selection of attributes, which would generate a unique bite-sized taster, composed of ingredients from the Central European Mixed Forest.
LOCI MENU: Central European Mixed Forest
Ingredient research and recipe development by Vilma Luostarinen
PESTICIDED POTATO SKINS
Baked from once-threatened local varieties
PINE MONOCULTURE CRISPBREAD
Made with Scots Pine bark and juniper berries
Czech poppy seed butter blended with imported tahini
Pâté with foraged forest mushrooms
Pork sausage with British-occupied, colonial spice mix
NOT YET D.P.O. CHEESE
Crafted but not yet certified Polish cheese
Made from uncanny Alpine and Arctic ingredients
Quick pickled, unsellable Polish apples with exportable Asian flavours
Self-sustaining, Berlin-grown lettuce from Infarm with Brandenburg pumpkin seed sprinkles
Capsules of grass from imagined bison comeback habitat
In December of last year, the Center visited Goa, India to participate in Serendipity Festival. We ran two projects during the festival: the BTBS brinjal food cart and a walking tour called Planetary Sculpture Picnic.
(Above) “Brinjal Taste-test & Brinjal Seed-saving” food cart for showcasing the agricultural biodiversity of Brinjal. (From 3pm to 7pm, December 19th, 20th, 21st)
(Above) “Planetary Sculpture Picnic” (PSP) a walking Tour and Eating Experience with short readings and small tasters. (Twice Daily: 11am-11:45am and 12pm-12:45pm, on December 19th, 20th, 21st)
BTBS Food Cart
The name BTBS doubles as the acronym for “Brinjal Taste-test & Brinjal Seed-save”, as well as a reference to BT Brinjal (a transgenic suite of brinjals) and the negative public opinion around the release of these GM varieties.
Leading up to the festival, The Center designed a cart that could function as a station for taste-tests, seed-saving, and recipe exchange, specifically to celebrate the diversity of brinjal that exists in India. In Goa we visited local markets to collect as many varieties of brinjal as we could find.
At the cart, visitors could learn to save brinjal seeds by extracting, washing, sieving, and drying seeds from the brinjals we had collected. The most committed visitors took home seeds to try and grow their own brinjal plants. Our brinjal collection increased on Day 2 of the festival, when one of our collaborators in Goa brought us a brinjal from her yard (seen below) and two visitors to the festival brought us a unique white variety from their garden.
Each day, the cart served a free small brinjal dish made by local cooks.
Visitors could also leave behind a Brinjal postcard, contributing their own recipe or story about their favorite brinjal.
Planetary Sculpture Picnic
PSP was a walking tour with four stops and a few snacks and stories from the past, present, and future. Planetary Sculpture refers to the different ways in which humans sculpt the planet through food choices. PSP was a tour that focused on concepts and flavours for eating in a new way, one which not only minimizes our impact on the planet, but actively attempts to heal it. The tour took place in Children’s Park, Goa.
PART 1: Taste Around Us
At this stop, entitled Smog Tasting, visitors tasted the air pollution in Goa through tiny meringue cookies which had been whipped with air from the nearby street. After tasting the smog cookies, visitors mapped out their perceptions of high and low smog areas in Goa.
(Above) Elizabeth whipping meringue cookies on a busy street in Panaji the night before the first PSP tour.
PART 2: Taste Before Us
At this stop, entitled Midgley Celebration, we imagined a future ritual based on a villain from the past: the one human responsible for the most atmospheric damage to earth. Tour-goers gathered around a “Midgpin tree” in the park to enact a future Earth Day “Midgpin” smashing. A clay piñata in the likeness of Thomas Midgley Junior hung from the tree and one visitor was given the job of smashing the piñata. The Midgpin was filled seeds for bioremediation, carbon sequestration, or seeds for plants that can withstand harsh environments due to climate change. Midgley was responsible for inventing leaded petrol and Freon, which have caused great damage to the earth and atmosphere. The seeds released from the Midgpin are resilient. They replenish, restore, and revitalise. After the smashing, two tour-goers were asked to bring the ritual to a close by spreading a bag of soil over the fallen seeds.
PART 3: Taste Ahead of Us
Next we walked further into the park where we spread out blankets and took a seat. This third stop on the tour was called, Cover Crop Cuisine. Here we discussed and tasted the “noneconomic” plants that are grown to suppress weeds, fix nitrogen, control pest and diseases and replenish the soil. Each visitor was offered a Cover Crop Cuisine taster: Cover crop crackers with cowpea and mustard greens hummus, miso pickled mustard seeds and honey roasted cowpeas.
Finally, for the last stop on the tour, our visitors were asked to lie down and look up at the sky. This story was called To Flavour Our Tears and focused on humans as food source for other organisms: the skin we shed, the waste we produce, even our meat and blood and bone will all be consumed in due course. But what do we taste like to our consumers? Is there a way for us to modify our flavour to please our parasites and saprophytes? Tour-goers then closed their eyes and tapped lightly on their eyelids as they imagined a specific kind of tear-drinking month coming to feast on their tears. As they did this we read aloud a passage from a scientist in Thailand who was studying these months. In the passage, the scientist recalls his first-hand account of feeding his own tears to wild moths in the moonlight.
Finally, visitors were offered a tea and time for discussion as they reflected on the tour experience and imagined additional ways of healing the earth through new or alternative (agri)cultural practices.
Thank you to curator Manu Chandra and Serendipity for inviting us to participate in the festival. And a huge thank you to Koshy Brahmatmaj, Elizabeth Yorke, and our Serendipity Volunteers for bringing these projects to life.
The Center’s SEED-O-MATIC was featured at this year’s Variety Showcase in Portland, Oregon, hosted by the Culinary Breeding Network. The vending machine was stocked with seeds supplied by the Open Source Seed Initiative and visitors could find out more about their seeds by visiting various stations at the Variety Showcase event.
What if biotechnology was hackable and accessible to all? It wouldn’t need to be anything fancy, just groups of hobbyists experimenting with what they might do with biology that is interesting. Just like in the early days of computing most biotechnology happens in large laboratories, and the experiments that are pursued are chosen because they are deemed to be profitable or worthy. And just like in computing, the early purveyors of mainframes as profit boxes or war machines missed the future as it oozed in the society around them.
The Rare Endophyte Collectors Club is an attempt to do something interesting biotechnology off the grid with hobbyists and curiosity. What are the microbes that live inside of plants, how do they act, and what might they do if we moved them over there instead? We are not making any promises, but endophytes might be useful as BioFertilizers and BioPesticides. That could help reduce our need to live on the industrial chemical grid.
Getting off the grid means creating a new infrastructure for doing biology, agriculture and food that does not require petrochemical inputs and revitalizes the soils, water and air that surround us. But it starts with a new of seeing the world. Looking for endophytes is a new of seeing.