The Science of Sushi
Featuring Dr. Ole Mouritsen and Morihiro Onodera
April 23, 2014
To kick off our 2014 public lecture series, Dr. Ole Mouritsen joined Chef Morihiro Onodera to satisfy our craving for sushi-related science. The duo explained everything from sushi’s early history to the starchy science of sushi rice. Watch the entire lecture or check out some of the shorter highlights below.
Ole Mouritsen on the history of sushi
“The history of sushi is really the history of preservation of food. . . . Throughout Asia, in particular in China and later in Japan, people discovered that you can ferment fish – that is, you can preserve fish – by taking fresh fish and putting it in layers of cooked rice. . . . After some time the fish changes texture, it changes taste, it changes odor, but it’s still edible and it’s nutritious. And maybe after half a year you could then pull out the fish and eat the fish. That is the original sushi.”
Ole Mouritsen on the science of rice
“If you look inside the rice, you have little [starch] granules that are only three to eight microns, or three t0 eight thousandths of a millimeter, big. . . . When you cook the rice, you add some water and the water is absorbed by the rice and [the granules] swell. And the real secret behind the sushi rice is that when they swell, these little grains are not supposed to break.”
Morihiro Onodera on examining the quality of sushi rice
“First what I do is I soak uncooked rice in water. . . . Sometime after 20 minutes it will start to break. . . . I take a sample to check to see if there are any cracks. . . . With good rice, which has less cracks or breaks, you’re able to feel the texture of each of the grains in your mouth, whereas with the lower quality rice you’re just going to get the stickiness [from the starch].”
Ole G. Mouritsen is a professor of molecular biophysics at the University of Southern Denmark. His research concentrates on basic science and its practical applications to biotechnology, biomedicine, gastrophysics, and gastronomy. He is an elected member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, The Danish Academy of Technical Sciences, and the Danish Gastronomical Academy. His books include Life: As a Matter of Fat; Sushi: Food for the Eye, the Body, and the Soul; Seaweeds: Edible, Available, and Sustainable and Umami. Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste.
- What hooked you on science? On food?
- Science: Curiosity, in particular in the history of natural sciences (thermodynamics, statistical physics). Food: A combination of a continuously growing interest in cooking, a liking to eat good and challenging food (in particular Japanese food), a challenge to apply science principles to food and cooking, as well a deep interest in using food and taste as a vehicle for science communication.
- The coolest example of science in your food?
- Access to foodstuff from the ocean as a prime source for unsaturated essential fatty acids together with the invention of cooking for producing soft food as key driving forces for human evolution. Next to that, dairy products have a wonderful science content.
- The food you find most fascinating?
- Almost all traditional Japanese food, because of the combination of its cultural history, deliciousness, aesthetic looks, freshness, and bounty of good stuff from the ocean.
- What scientific concept–food related or otherwise–do you find most fascinating?
- Self-assembly and interface-active compounds.
- Are there any analogies you like to use to explain difficult or counter-intuitive food science concepts?
- I have found that a pacman analogy is a great way of making people understand the secrets of the synergy in the umami taste sensation. Not really counter-intuitive, but somewhat surprising and good to understand better what you already know.
- How does your scientific knowledge or training impact the way you cook? Do you conduct science experiments in the kitchen?
- I am an intuitive cook in my own kitchen and I have no patience for recipes, and hence never use cookbooks. Sometimes I ask science questions, but in most cases cooking to me is more like performing music (not that I know since I am not a musician). Also, the kitchen for me is a place for mental repair and relaxation, the foreplay being shopping at food markets.
- One kitchen tool you could not live without?
- My Japanese all-purpose kitchen knife.
- Five things most likely to be found in your fridge?
- Skyr (or yoghurt), a selection of tsukemono, marinated herring, miso, yuzu juice, and dried/smoked/aged sausages.
- Your all-time favorite ingredient?
- Favorite cookbook?
- I have no favorite cookbook (don’t care much for cookbooks). My favorite food-related book is no doubt McGee’s On Food and Cooking.
- Your standard breakfast?
- At home, always skyr (or yoghurt), home-mixed basis muesli with no dried fruit but always with roasted buckwheat, topped with a sip of fresh orange juice and possibly some fresh blueberries, if in season. To drink, fresh orange juice with as much pulp I can get and black tea. When traveling, I am an omnivore and prefer to eat like the locals.
The 2014 UCLA Science & Food public lecture series is here!
General admission tickets are available for $25 from the UCLA Central Ticket Office (CTO) . Tickets can be purchased from the UCLA CTO over the phone or in person and will not include additional fees or surcharges. The UCLA CTO is located on-campus and is open Monday–Friday, 10am –4pm. A UCLA CTO representative can be reached during these hours at 310-825-2101. Tickets can also be purchased online from Ticketmaster for $25 plus additional fees. A limited number of $5 student tickets are available to current UCLA students. These must be purchased in person at the UCLA CTO with a valid Bruin Card.
The Science of Sushi
Dr. Ole Mouritsen & Chef Morihiro Onodera
Wednesday April 23, 2014 at 7:00pm
Schoenberg Hall, UCLA
In this lecture, Dr. Ole Mouritsen will illuminate the science underlying sashimi, nori, sushi rice, umami, and more. He will be joined by Chef Morihiro Onodera who will share his approach to sushi as well as an inside look into his partnership with a rice farm in Uruguay.
How We Taste
Dr. Dana Small, Chef Wylie Dufresne, & Peter Meehan
Wednesday May 14, 2014 at 7:00pm
Schoenberg Hall, UCLA
In this lecture, we will explore how we taste from the perspectives of a scientist, a chef, and a food writer. Dr. Dana Small will describe how our brains respond to flavors, and shed light on the link to obesity. She will be joined by Chef Wylie Dufresne who will present his creative approach to generating surprising food flavors and textures. Peter Meehan will share his experiences with food and taste and how they have shaped his writing, both as a cookbook author and former writer for The New York Times.
Harnessing Creativity (and the Science of Pie)
Dave Arnold & Chef Lena Kwak
Sunday June 1, 2014 at 2:30pm
Ackerman Grand Ballroom, UCLA
At this event, Dave Arnold will discuss his latest culinary innovations and the role of creativity in food. He will be joined by Chef Lena Kwak who will share her process of invention, research, and discovery in the kitchen. Also at this event, students of the Science & Food course will present the results of their apple pie projects, including their freshly baked pies in a large-scale pie tasting. The event will close with an Iron-Chef style discussion of the winning pies featuring the keynote speakers and renowned judges from the Los Angeles community.