"Exotic Foods From Home and Afar"

A lecture by Dr Massimo Marconi, 10 September 2007

Report by Maggie Newell

Maggie is CHO’s Secretary, and often writes program reviews for Culinary Chronicles.

Following the business meeting at CHO’s Annual General Meeting on September 10, Dr Massimo Marconi took us on an illustrated tour of food delicacies of unusual origins, and treated us to a rare coffee. Professor Marconi is a food chemist in the Science Department of the University. At his work he is often asked to analyze and authenticate exotic foods.

One exotic is Indonesia’s Kopi Luwak coffee, which is as famous for its method of processing as it is for its flavour. The name Kopi Luwak combines the words for coffee and civet. The civet (of the mongoose family) eats coffee berries in pursuit of the fruit pulp surrounding the beans. The indigestible bean passes through the stomach and gastrointestinal tract, and is eliminated in the scat, which is harvested from the forest floor. The beans are washed and roasted to make coffee. Dr Marconi was asked to investigate how passing through the civet’s digestive system changed the beans, and to confirm that this is what makes them so special. Identifying the chemical processes also makes it possible to determine if a sample bean is the genuine article. Authentication proves when these expensive coffee beans are real. Kopi Luwak coffee is sold for $600.00 a pound, but generally only a quarter pound at a time to wealthy connoisseurs on a waiting list.

To begin his work on the beans Dr Marconi went to the rainforest to collect samples of scat with beans in them and control samples of beans off the bushes. He took the precaution of using a bio- containment hood, but to his surprise, he discovered that the washed beans that had passed through the civet had a lower bacteria count than the control beans. He realized that limited bacteria can survive in the civet’s digestive system. Through careful examination he observed that the gastrointestinal juices had etched the beans’ surfaces, and gotten into them to break down the proteins. Lactic acid bacteria aids in digesting the coffee cherry. The proteins in the bean are altered by the intrusion of the gastric juices, and when the beans are roasted the reaction between the sugars and proteins is also altered. He concluded that this accounts for the unique difference in flavour.

In a similar vein Dr Marconi also explained how in Morocco argan oil is processed with the assistance of goats. To feast on the fleshy fruit that surrounds the argan nut, the goats climb the thorny trees. The undigested nuts are collected and washed before being pressed for its oil.

Another example of a food of unusual origin is Bird’s Nest Soup. An industry has grown up in Malaysia around collecting the nests of a very small swallow called a swiftlet. Originally these nests were harvested from the wild in caves. Today people in towns are building bird houses on house tops to attract the swiftlets to nest. The nests are made of the males’ special saliva. Devotees swear to the health benefits of this soup. The chemical explanation for this may be its large quantity of specific protein, which is known to kill bacteria.

Dr Marconi’s talk was met with great interest and enthusiasm; keen questions from the audience threatened to force him completely off course. He did, however, manage to bring us back to ground with a discussion about a food of unusual origins common in Canadian kitchens: he asked us to reflect on the origin of honey. The honey bee is equipped with two stomachs, one of which is for collecting nectar for future storage in the hive. The enzymes in the bee’s stomach work their magic, and the resulting honey is regurgitated into the comb to provide food for the bees. Bee keepers intercept the honey and process it for human consumption by extracting it from the comb and pasteurizing it, a process that does little to alter the original honey.

Sometimes the exotic is closer to home than we think!

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