Story and photos by Maya Hey
The meal is never finished. The experiment is never complete. One is constantly tinkering, improving, and modifying because there’s always more to be had in search of the next best thing. It’s a symptom of an everlasting madness that’s been the heart of the Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen.
We came in through the window marked by a bright green sill. No logo, no signage, no walkway or fanfare; if it weren’t for the stainless steel countertops and the sheen of induction burners, I would have second-guessed whether this was the Nordic Food Lab known for its cutting edge food research.
Talk About a Rabbit Hole.
Inside hung a collection of “research findings” displayed like trophies: vacuum-sealed talons, side table with birch tinctures, giant hornets embalmed in rice spirits, and a spray bottle labeled “beaver liver.” Elsewhere there was a framed dehydrated kombucha mother. Just above the stove were cured and waxed hind legs of a small animal gently stretching on meat hooks. These were just a fraction of past projects. Like a scene from Frankenstein, jars and test tubes of vaguely recognizable items dotted the otherwise pristine white of a laboratory. Despite the hodgepodge of it all, everything was edible and perfected to deliciousness.
The Nordic Food Lab prides itself as an open-source research organization, committed to biodiversity and seeking out all things delicious. As a test kitchen, it’s an in-between space where people from far reaches of expertise put heads together in a whole-hog attempt to map out the gastronomic potential of foods, ranging from mushrooms the size of basketballs to seaweed ice creams to nixtamalization of tortillas.
I had been visiting the Lab almost exactly one year ago as part of a study trip for university. At that time, the Lab was researching entomophagy, or the cultural practice of insect eating. We tried pipets of garum, made from grasshopper that reminded me of a more lush version of what I knew to be soy sauce. Rich. Round. Wide. Way more complex than the sharpness or salt-burn that comes from industrial soy sauce.
Had the Lab not ventured into that space of mashing garum with edible insects, we may have never known the possibility of a grasshopper transforming into something tasty. I may not be grabbing grasshoppers as my next snack any time soon, but the greater implications for what we consider edible and inedible are quite profound when we really tinker with raw ingredients. Even then, it makes me wonder what other tastes are out there waiting to be coaxed out of the seemingly impossible, unfathomable, or mundane.
This constant tinkering resonated with me as a food-obsessed researcher. To come across an organization that pursues deliciousness without ever settling for an answer, felt both comforting and inspiring. And, as a lab grounded in the scientific method, every trial of each experiment is documented visually, numerically, sensorially, and then publicly shared with geeky precision.
Having finished my master's degree, I’m here to study, taste, play around with, tweak, fine-tune, and nerd-out on koji. Simply put, koji is the workhorse behind many Japanese ferments with the help of the mold Aspergillus oryzae. Koji is both an ingredient and a tool that converts rice into sake and beans into miso or soy sauce. While most Japanese koji is inoculated on rice, I’m looking into Nordic versions of koji made with barley as well as its miso-like, sake-like derivatives.
This is the first place where I feel like all parts of my science/foodie backgrounds can have a say on one topic. At the moment, I have a battery of koji experiments simultaneously running: I’m making koji using a low-tech method, using koji to perfect a meatless demi-glace, creating a no-sugar added koji ice cream, brewing koji “beer,” roasting koji marshmallows, and curing egg yolks in koji, all the while quantifying just how active the koji (and its enzymes) become under controlled conditions.
My schedule is what others may consider rote, but I’m knee-deep in current experiments, data analysis of past experiments, planning future iterations, and cooking family-style staff lunches that I hardly notice the full-time worker-bee status. If anything, I find myself coming in early because I want to. I am fulfilled by this place mentally, and I am nourished by it physically.
Often, it’s not until I start to write out a label that I notice the number of days that has passed since my last data point I collected on my experiments. Koji takes four days to make, whereas demi-glace takes 4 hours and “beer” takes four weeks. Trying to stay on top of it all is analogous to keeping the momentum on spinning plates. Some plates need attention more frequently than others.
Miso takes at least one year, and the temporary nature of my stay here is all the more pronounced every time I make and label a batch. It’s like packing a gift for my future colleagues:
2.5kg barley koji, 2.0kg LR peas packed April 18, 2016 /
Harvest after April 2017.”
It warms my heart knowing that these experiments will continue even without my being here, in the same way that I’ve come across past researchers’ experiments from as early as 2012.
The spirit of experimentation could be summed up so: I find myself constantly flipping between asking “what if…?” and “how could…?” and it’s a leitmotif in a creative hotbed like the Nordic Food Lab. Experiments and ideas incubate here in a way that blurs the lines between work and play. Everyday is fun because it’s meant to be. And we keep on because we cannot wait idly; the anticipation is simply too much.
We are all mad here, and our madness will continue to grab our stomachs and pull us in every direction. Not only will I take my experiences from here with me, it’s humbling to think that my influence will remain in the lab so the next person who stumbles in through the window will have something to gawk at and ponder “what if?”
Maya Hey is a gastronome, writer, and fermentation enthusiast. She’s spent the last two years living out of her suitcase in search of different ways to reconnect with food. She has a master’s degree in food culture and communications and a background in dietetics and chemistry.
Maya Hey cannot sleep on planes, though she wishes with all her might that she could. Having grown up in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, she’s crossed the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans more than 100 times by her teenage years and would be hard pressed to list one locale as her hometown. All her time spent in airports has taught her a thing or two about packing light. In fact, she’s been living out of the same suitcase for the past 2 years where her recent travels have taken her from Long Beach, CA to organic farms in Japan to graduate studies in Italy. She holds a master’s degree in Food Culture and Communications from the University of Gastronomic Sciences which, combined with her dietetics and chemistry background, allows her to nerd out on fermented foods like sourdough, kombucha, and beer. She really digs the way fermentation lets us peek into the relationship between humans and microbes, and is currently interning at the Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen. Follow her food adventures and lab shenanigans on Instagram.