The word “cooking” is one of those linguistic ambiguities that cause so much discussion between the amateur and the enthusiast. Like so many other words before it, it has gained a colloquial use that we all accept as the base truth: cooking is the process of exposing something to heat. It can include boiling, frying, roasting, steaming and barbecuing, as long as there is some sort of heat involved. The Oxford Dictionary even includes the latter point in its primary definition: “the practice or skill of preparing food by combining, mixing, and heating ingredients.”
This is an attitude that is overwhelmingly prevalent amongst many; however, the situation is a little more complex than that. When a product is smoked, is it cooked? After all, many types of meat that are smoked can be eaten afterwards, without ever needing to reintroduce them to heat. The same can be said for the curing process. In Japan, fish is often cooked in a marinade, which usually consists of an acidic mixture. Lime, lemon and vinegar are all popular ways to achieve this effect, and it has become a culinary cornerstone of that culture. These heatless recipes are rather new to the Western world and many are yet to hear about the fantastic effects that can be achieved without the use of a hot pan or a sizzling heat source.
Luckily, a group of restaurants and food personalities are trying to change that and bring enlightenment to the people of Britain. They’re demonstrating the transformation that food undergoes when it comes into contact with heat. They, perhaps more than anyone outside of the molecular gastronomy crowd, are reminding us that the process of food preparation is, at it’s base level, simply chemistry. The reason we marinate, season and cook in particular ways is to achieve certain reactions that lead to certain flavors. It’s the reason why a good roasting joint is put in an scorching hot oven for its first 15 minutes, it’s the reason why balsamic vinegar and strawberries pair so well when left for an hour in each other’s company, and it’s key to understanding gastronomy as a whole.
One restaurant trying to reinforce this message is Vantra Vitao in Oxford Street. Competing with the plethora of local eateries, it obviously needed an unique selling point; however, for them the idea of living food is so much more than marketing, it’s a way of life. This ultra healthy vegan restaurant is a superb example of an ethical philosophy brought to life in the most delightful style. They’re scrupulous in their cooking methods, to an extent with which few others can compete. By using water to cook their meals, they are able to help protect their food from the build of carcinogens that occur in the frying of meat and retain its nutritional value. These chemicals have been repeatedly linked to cancer in the past, so a clear alternative preparation method is certainly welcome!
Much of Vantra Vitao’s food is served just as nature intended it. When it does see the inside of a cooking pot, it’s heated to a maximum of 40 degrees Celsius, in order to preserve as many of its natural attributes as possible. As one would imagine, this does require them to get a little creative with their recipes; thankfully, there are some excellent dishes that turn to unique sources in order to mimic their counterparts. The concept of “mylk” in particular is one that is rather intriguing. Made from nuts, this milk substitute in many ways surpasses the original product. The rich, creaminess of the hazelnut for example makes a beautiful pairing with coffee, whilst the mellow flavor of almond serves as the perfect canvass for more exotic ingredients to display their own unique advantages. The same can be said of their raw cacao torte, which is pleasantly free of the syrupy edge that tends to mark many chocolate desserts.
What preparation method do you believe is superior? If you’ve tried “raw” food, what were your impressions of it?