Sweet caviar, seaweed dessert, vegetarian cookies … these are some of the weird (yet delicious) dishes local secondary students made at the first SciChef Cooking Challenge Final on May 9.
Compiled by John Kang May 21, 2015
Victory is sweet – it’s dessert
For the final, Good Hope School’s Fiona So Hoi-lam and Priscilla Yeung Wan-yan made an “Amazing Dessert from Seaweed”. The judges clearly agreed that it was amazing, because the dish won the SciChef Cooking Challenge.
Organised by the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) faculty of science, the Education Bureau and the charity Go.Asia, the event hoped to “get people interested in food science and raise awareness in the global issues concerning nutrition and food safety,” said HKU Professor Paul Tam Kwong-hang.
This meant students had to understand the science behind cooking – the numerous chemical reactions that contribute to a dish’s final presentation and taste. They had to substitute ingredients, find creative scientific solutions around culinary problems, and produce “scientifically perfect” dishes or scientifically healthier alternatives. Each chef also had to present their dish to the judges and justify the science behind it.
In the final, 12 teams had to impress the four culinary experts: Chef Anita Lam of the HK Electric Home Management Centre, the venue hosting the event; Dr Nagendra Shah, professor of food science and technology at HKU; Simon Wong, president of the Institution of Dining Art; and Edmon Chung, food blogger and columnist, and CEO of DotAsia Organisation.
Fiona and Priscilla produced a platter of five desserts: watermelon jelly with melon juice, honey dough jelly with yogurt, mango lump with agar, apple jelly with strawberry, and coffee with coffee beads, all in just an hour.
Wong was so impressed with its taste, he actually asked for a copy of the recipe during their presentation.
The most impressive part of their dish was their application of high school chemistry. The girls mixed algae from seaweed extracts with calcium. This creates a chemical reaction called polymerisation, and forms a tough membrane, which, Shah later pointed out, was calcium alginate. They then used this membrane to form a jelly, or bead, that can be used many different ways.
It was by far the most thorough application of science, as it applied to all of their desserts and required an understanding of the process of polymerisation. This scientific know-how won the duo HK$3,000 worth of coupons and the title of the first winners of the SciChef Cooking Challenge.
When Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man presented their awards, he said: “I’m glad we’re not only dealing with the taste of the food, but we are also dealing with the scientific aspect of the food.” The first SciChef Cooking Challenge marked a great start of things to come in the Hong Kong food scene.
Cookies that won’t kill you
Lam Tsz-yan and Lee Ngai-shan of the Tsuen Wan Public Ho Chuen Yiu Memorial College brought something new to the table with their vegetarian cookies – an innovative and healthy alternative to traditional cookies that are high in sugar and fatty butter.
These so-called veggie cookies contained mushrooms, pumpkin and a red bean paste. Each ingredient was used for a specific reason: some enriched the flavour of the cookies, some created a certain texture, and others made the cookies look more appetising.
Furthering their use of science, the girls explained that they had replaced the sugar and the butter with honey and olive oil to make the cookies healthier.
Shah said this meant that “they know what they’re doing,” because the complexity of honey’s sugar means that it’s absorbed in the body in a way that’s more beneficial than normal sugar.
The HKU professor also added that olive oil is high in unsaturated fat, whereas butter has more saturated fat, which is not good for you.
So why don’t all chefs do this with all unhealthy food? Well, as Shah pointed out, changing the ingredients does not create an exact replica. “When we change the ingredients, it obviously affects the texture, the taste and other things.”
This was the challenge the duo faced and overcame, as they turned their ingredients into absolute afternoon delights. In the end, their efforts won them outstanding mentions.
If more people try to combine science and the culinary arts, we can create healthier, yet equally satisfying, alternatives to buttery cookies. This combination could spell a healthier future for the food industry.
An update on the boring old chicken breast
The Holy Trinity College team, Dorothy Cheng Tin-lam, Ariel Lau Chi-ying and Tiffany Wu Hiu-yan, made chicken breast salad, which may seem ordinary compared with blueberry caviar and seaweed dessert, but it included a unxique cranberry cocktail.
Before the competition even began, they prepared the chicken breasts by marinating them in lemon juice. This helps break the collagen and the tissue of the chicken breast, tenderising it. After a couple of hours, they put the chicken into a ziplock bag and sucked all the air out of it. Then they put the vacuum bag into a water bath to cook the chicken at a constant temperature of 63 degrees Celsius, after discovering that you need a temperature of at least 60 degrees to kill all the bacteria in the meat.
This method locks in the moisture, making the breast tender and juicy.
As a side dish, the students prepared a fresh salad of vegetables and mangoes. For the dressing they filled test tubes with different liquids and placed them in beakers filled with ice so that they stayed cold. Judges could then make their own salad dressing easily by mixing the liquids – red vinegar, yellow vinegar and lemon juice – into another small bottle that contained garlic, salts, black pepper, honey, and olive oil. This way, they could control how much of each ingredient they wanted in their own salad dressing. The scientific equipment also added a nice touch to the whole molecular gastronomy concept.
As if that weren’t enough, the students also created a refreshing cranberry cocktail to go with the salad because they wanted to make a full meal for the judges. By creating this well-planned meal, the students won a deserving second place in the competition.
Getting creative with classy caviar
If you thought caviar was weird, just imagine blueberry caviar. Tuen Mun Government Secondary School students Lee Tsz-ching and Yuki Chan Hiu-tung thought caviar tasted too salty and wasn’t healthy, so they added blueberries to sweeten it and make it more nutritious.
To make this sweet caviar, the students blended blueberries and mixed the juice with Ribena and egg powder mixture. Then they placed a container of this liquid into boiling water.
Once it reached 100 degrees Celsius, they used a dropper to add droplets of the juice into a big bottle of cooking oil. Because the surface tensions of oil and water are different, the juice solidifies and does not dissolve in the oil.
The judges were amazed by this new sweet caviar – which even looks like regular caviar. As a result, the team won an outstanding award for their recipe.
Science fiction in the kitchen