CULINARY FORENSICS KITCHEN (CFK) by Center for Genomic Gastronomy

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In December 2012 the Center for Genomic Gastronomy participated in an event called “Nomadic Science Hack Lab” in Prague. At the time we were researching spices. Spices are highly fungible. Spices can travel far. The spice trade is worth a lot of money. Spices are essential inputs for industrial food design.

Inspired by a story about the secret spice mix of KFC (formerly known as “Kentucky Fried Chicken”), we hosted a workshop to prototype methods for reverse-engineering commercial spice mixes. We tried several techniques, including DIY Chromatography. Truthfully, the only real success we had during this workshop in identifying the contents of a spice mix was the simplest: using our hands and our taste buds.

Culinary Forensics Kitchen

Our Basic Method for Dried Spice Mix identification (in case you want to replicate the technique):

  • Start with a teaspoon of spice mix
  • Using a clean white surface and tweezers, manually separate out the individual granules of spices and sort them into piles of similar size/colour/shape.
  • Based on colour, shape and texture, guess what the individual spices are.
  • Taste the separated piles of spices to help identify them.
  • If you are unsure about the exact spice based on taste, list down what you think it could be (e.g. “salt or msg?”).
  • Look at the individual components under a DIY microscope, and compare them to images online of what you think you are looking at (you can, for example, search ‘salt microscope’ and ‘msg microscope’ in a search engine for images to compare to).
  • Write down the list of ingredients you think the spice mix contained.

For our lab we used a sample of commercial spice mix. After using the method above, we compared our list of ingredients to the list on the spice mix package. We were pretty accurate.

After our workshop in 2012 we published a blogpost (http://genomicgastronomy.com/blog/culinary-forensics-draft/) about why culinary forensics was interesting to us (although we didn’t detail our methodology as outlined above). Since then, this blogpost has led to some of the most interesting and strange emails we have received over the years, indicating that there is a real desire (well intentioned or not) for reverse-engineering spice mixes. What does this say about the state of sharing, IP, and hacking in industrial food culture? Is there a spice mix you wish you had the recipe for?


HAVE SAUSAGE, NEED LAB.

  • From: xxxxxxx@xxxxxx.com
  • Sep 2018
  • SUBJECT: Reverse Engineering

Good morning,

I have a sausage that I need the recipe for.

Can you help me find a lab that can run this process for me?

FLAVOR VAPORIZATION?

  • From: xxxx@xxxxxxx.com
  • June 2017
  • SUBJECT: Culinary Forensics

Hello!

I'm an amateur food hacker, and I found your blog post about culinary forensics and was intrigued by some of the things you did at a hackathon in Prague back in 2012. You said you had developed some methods for reverse engineering spices/speculoos/etc. Did you ever develop those methods further? Specifically, I saw mention of potential chromatography and "flavor vaporization" (what is that anyway?). Did you ever do a writeup of the methods you used?

Cheers!


Editor’s Note: This is sadly one we didn’t get around to replying to. We do not know what "flavor vaporization" is either.

ON A WING AND A PRAYER

  • From: xxxxxxx@xxxxxx.com
  • Dec 2019
  • SUBJECT: Reverse engineering wing sauce

I have a recipe that needs to be reversed engineered. The reason is because this is a special sauce made by a chef who has succumbed to alcoholism and it's very important for all of us to keep his work alive. We only have maybe two ounces of the sauce left from a couple of years ago that's held up. What can we do to get your help!!!

  • From: info@genomicgastronomy.com
  • Dec 2019
  • SUBJECT: Re: Reverse engineering wing sauce

Hi XXXXXXX — Thank you for getting in touch. That sounds like a large responsibility and we hope you are able to reverse engineer the recipe, and continue the legacy of your colleague. With such a little amount of source material, and the gravity of the situation, I don't think we would be the best partners for you.

I do know that there are some commercial chromatography labs that might be able to help you. I have also bcc'd a few colleagues that may have some leads on other analysis options, and they might be able to chime in.


All the best, Center for Genomic Gastronomy

  • From: xxxxxxx@xxxxxx.com
  • Dec 2019
  • SUBJECT: Re: Re: Reverse engineering wing sauce

Hi Xxxx -

I appreciate your help and thank you for responding to me.

WIFE’S FAVORITE RECIPE

  • From: xxxxxxx@xxxxx.com
  • Jan 2015
  • Subject: Spice Mixture Analysis

Dear Sir or Madam:

I am writing because I would like to have a mixture of ground spices analyzed (in order to determine its exact contents and the exact ratio of these contents). My wife purchased what she believed to be the recipe for this spice mixture in China from the owner of a small restaurant. It (the spice mixture) is meant to be used for the preparation of a Chinese dish called "liangpi," which so happens to be my wife's favorite Chinese dish. She bought the recipe (or, rather, the alleged recipe) for this spice mixture for her own personal use, in the hopes that she would be able to prepare "liangpi" at home. (It should be noted that there are many different versions of this spice mixture, which greatly determines the taste of the finished product, and that my wife prefers this small restaurant owner's particular version.) It turned out, however, after my wife failed to reproduce this spice mixture from the aforesaid recipe, that my wife had been deceived by this small restaurant owner. Since she paid a hefty sum for the recipe, she feels like she has been wronged, and she is seeking some personal justice. (I am an American. My wife is Chinese. We both live in China, where, as far as this matter is concerned, we have no legal recourse.) Since the small restaurant owner, in addition to selling "liangpi," also sells the spice mixture, we were able to easily procure a sample. We hope that you might be willing to analyze this sample.

We would greatly appreciate your professional assistance and/or advice.

Sincerely,

xxxxxxx xxxxxxx

  • From: info@genomicgastronomy.com
  • Jan 2015
  • SUBJECT: Re:Spice Mixture Analysis

Hi Xxx -

Thank you for getting in contact. Although we do conduct some workshops in culinary forensics, our skill and expertise in this particular area are quite amateur and for fun only. I don’t think we can give you the professional answer you are looking for. I know that professional resources exist that may be useful to you, but I don’t have a specific lab or University that I can recommend. One possibility is to contact a food lab (either commercial or academic) where they have high-spec equipment and methods like chromotography that can give you the precise and accurate amounts you are looking for.

Asking around to some academic colleagues it sounds like the information you are requesting is now possible to achieve, but does not come cheap. Selective extraction, state-of-the-art liquid chromatography - mass spectrometry (LC-MS) and multivariate analysis can provide this information. However, profiles would have to be gathered from all the potential ingredients as well as the mix, in order to discriminate the information. If a commercial entity wanted to conduct the kind of analysis you are requesting they would have to spend a few thousand $’s at minimum.

If we were running this ourselves as a hands-on workshop, (NOTE: for fun and with amateurs, not professionally), the first thing we might do is take a small but representative sample of the spice mix, and using a microscope, mechanically separate the components into piles. This would be to see how much information we could gather with the absolute lowest technique and cost possible. Then we would move up to other techniques that would be available to us, including DIY liquid chromatography, or other forms of less expensive analysis. If you can identify all the components using a low-tech, low cost technique, you could then experiment with different amounts, using the subjective sense of smell and taste.

I hope this is helpful. If you want, I can post a summary of your request on our blog / Facebook and see if anyone else has other thoughts / suggestions.

Best,

  • From: xxxxxxx@xxxxx.com
  • Jan 2015
  • Subject: Re: re: Spice Mixture Analysis


Hi Xxxx,

Thanks for your quick response! It's very generous of you to provide us with so much information. We really appreciate it. Since the recipe that my wife purchased only cost a fraction of what it would apparently cost to procure a professional analysis of the spice mixture, and since we do not have many U.S. dollars to burn, it would really be best for us to choose the amateur option. So, we would be thrilled if you could take a look at our spice mixture in one of your future workshops in culinary forensics, and we would be very pleased if you could post a summary of our request on your blog and/or Facebook page.

Thanks again!

Best, Xxxxxxx

CURRY POWDER? CALL ME.

  • From: xxxxxx.xxxxx@xxxxx.com
  • Jul 2017
  • SUBJECT: Reverse Engineering of Mix Spices

Hi, do you offer services in reverse engineering of mix spices? If yes, what's a good number I can call you at? Mines is xxx-xxx-xxxx.

regards, Xxxx

  • From: info@genomicgastronomy.com
  • Jul 2017
  • SUBJECT: Re: Reverse Engineering of Mix Spices


Hi Xxxx —

Thank you for getting in contact. We ran some citizen science workshops on this topic, but do not have any commercial services that we offer.

Might I ask what the question you have is? What are you trying to reverse engineer?

It may help me think of some other pointers for you.

Also, you might look to some services online that offer food analysis or gas chromatography at universities.

All the Best,

CGG

  • From: xxxxxx.xxxxx@xxxxx.com
  • Jul 2017
  • SUBJECT: Re: Re: Reverse Engineering of Mix Spices

Hi,

I'm looking to reverse engineer a few ground spice mixes such as garam masala and curry powder. Please help me with any contacts.

Regards, Xxxx


DETERMINED

  • From: Xxxx Xxxxxxx
  • Feb 2017
  • SUBJECT: Reverse Engineer Recipe Question

Hello -

I found your website through a Google search. I'm hoping you can help me out. I've been looking for a week and I'm having a difficult time getting someone to return my call or email.

I'm looking for a company that can analyze a recipe and report the ingredients list to make / recreate the recipe.

Is there a company that can complete this procedure that you can refer me to? I would really appreciate it!

Thank You - Xxxx Xxxxxxx

— Editor’s Note: We never did connect. :(


PRIVATE LABEL NEW SEASON

  • From: xxxxx@xxxxxxxxxx.com
  • Nov 2016
  • SUBJECT: Info

Hello!

My name is Xxxxx Xxxxxxxx and I am the owner of Xxxxx Xxxx. We launched a line of seasonings a while back that we initially had private labeled to save on upstart costs. We are now in a position where we need to own the proprietary rights to the formulas and are looking to reverse engineer our existing line of seasonings. As a result, I have been doing some research looking for a way to reverse engineer and came across an article on your site written a few years ago. Not sure if you still offer or if this something you can do? If so, can you send me info on costs, process, etc. Thanks in advance!

Xxxxx Xxxxxxxx Xxxxx Xxxx


LATE UNCLE, EXACT RATIO

  • From: xxxxx@xxxxxxxxxx.com
  • June 2020
  • SUBJECT: Spice blend reverse engineering

Hi,

I was searching on google on how to reverse engineer a spice blend that my late uncle would make and I ended up on your blog.

I was wondering if you could help me in finding the exact ratio of each spices in the blend? I have little batch that I never used.

Any idea or help would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks Xxxxx Xxxxxxxx Xxxxx Xxxx


This text was published in Coded Bodies Publication in 2020