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It’s happened to us all. You’re away on business, traveling, taking a holiday in some far flung land, when out of the corner of your eye you notice a dish from home. It’s exciting, months since you last enjoyed a bite of memory, so you order it straight away. What follows, and we’ve all been there, is an hour of exclaiming, huffing and angry puffing about how the dish is nothing like it’s local equivalent. It’s either over cooked, not cooked enough, tame on spice, terrible for balance - “they’ve bastardised it” you scoff.
It happens all over the world, from the greasy versions of kebabs passed off as a true taste of Turkey, to weak bowls of over cooked pasta slopped with grimy Bolognese, somehow labelled as authentic Italian. With so much creative license, difficulty in sourcing ingredients and local pallets to consider, the authentic taste of home you found yourself craving, more often than not, quickly turns to disappointment. Like buying a painting you thought was a Picasso only to discover the man who sold you it is actually a well dressed, well spoken, street bum with nothing but a box of broken Crayola to his name.
This is the disappointment felt recently by the Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra who, before being over thrown in a military coup, expressed deep concern at some of the dishes she encountered around the world carrying the Thai food label. Now, The New York Times reports, the Government of Thailand are continuing some of Shinawatra’s work by developing a robot that can taste food and tell if it is truly Thai enough to earn the name.
The Electronic Tongue machine, which is fitted with a number of different sensors, was developed by the Thai Delicious Committee who describe it as “an intelligent robot that measures smell and taste in food ingredients through sensor technology in order to measure taste like a food critic.”
It’s programmed by first asking groups of human’s to taste a mix of the same dish. For the first Electronic Tongue experiment, researchers asked 120 tasters from the University of Bangkok to sit and try 10 different versions of tom yam soup - their preferences were then monitored and the winning soup picked as a standard base. This dish was then analysed for a number of chemical properties that the tongue can then identify at a later date, scoring dishes out of 100 depending on how close they match to the standard.
It all seems a little over the top but the NYT adds that a Thai businessman is already looking to commercialise the machine in the hope that Thai embassies around the world will pay $18,000 to test local thai restaurants in their country.
Many will surely argue that a robot can never truly evaluate the taste of a dish but this story coincides with research published this month from Denmark about work on robotic wine tongue that can detect dryness and tannins in wine more accurately than any wine critic.
For now we’re sticking with trying to balance sour, salt, sweet and spicy in our dishes with our own tongue - and this sound advice from David Thompson - living proof that an outsider can learn to cook true Thai cuisine. And here's a tasty collection of Thai recipes to help get you started.