Last year, a piece titled RIP Liquid Nitrogen appeared in theHindustan Times, in which food writer Antoine Lewis asked whether too many restaurants and bars had jumped on to the ‘molecular gastronomy’ bandwagon, using science for little more than shock value.
Well, it looks like we’ve hit peak shock value. In April, a drink made with liquid nitrogen and served at a Gurgaon pub left a 30-year-old man with a hole in his stomach. As of a week ago, liquid nitrogen can no longer be used in any food or drink in Haryana. Smoke-haloed cocktails, cryo-chaat, instant ice cream, freeze-dried fruit, chutney foam, and other liquid nitrogen fancifications are now off menus across the state.
The story’s been doing the rounds, and even if we didn’t know too much about the element that’s been the darling of molecular gastronomy for years, we do now. Liquid nitrogen has a boiling point of -195.8 degrees Celsius. It’s a cryogenic fluid that causes rapid freezing on contact. It has an expansion ratio of 1:694 – so at 20 degree Celsius, one litre of liquid nitrogen expands to 694 litres of nitrogen gas.
In modern cuisine, the kind that was synonymous with Adriá and Blumenthal but is now peddled at outlets with names like Cream Chemistry and Atomic 7, the extremely cold temperature produced by liquid nitrogen is used to make frozen foams, cocktails and ice cream. (Liquid nitrogen has a bunch of other applications too: it’s what they use to freeze your eggs, for instance, and to remove warts.) But, as the gent in Gurgaon found out, it can also be extremely damaging to body tissue - it may cause frostbite and burns on contact, and if ingested, the large volume of gas released on evaporation can perforate the stomach. It is potentially lethal.
(In fact, this isn’t the first time the issue has blown up. In 2012, a teenager in Lancaster, UK, had to have her stomach removed after drinking a cocktail prepared with liquid nitrogen.)
We asked Nitin Tewari, the bar and beverage consultant behind Ek Bar, Toast & Tonic and Masque, what the deal was. Tewari says that with everyone in the F&B space racing to beat each other on the cool quotient, accidents like these are waiting to happen.
It looks like we’ve hit peak shock value. In April, a drink made with liquid nitrogen and served at a Gurgaon pub left a 30-year-old man with a hole in his stomach.
“The people who started using these tools did so after years of research and study. When their techniques are followed by the educated and passionate, it’s great; but when it’s turned into a gimmick without knowing any better, that’s when it gets dangerous,” he tells us. Tewari, who says he rarely incorporates liquid nitrogen in his menus, last used it to create a gola-style Negroni sangria for Negroni week, and even then, it was less smoking cocktail, more frozen boozy dessert.
Zorawar Kalra of Farzi Café-fame, who’s built an empire on oils, fizzes, fumes, smokes, foams, purees and reductions, tells us that liquid nitrogen has to be treated the same as any extreme element, like fire. “It must remain within the walls of the kitchen, it’s not going out to the table. The staff should have solid training on how to handle liquid nitrogen properly; always gloves, no splashes ever, and zero contact with the guest.”
Restaurateurs and bartenders are not meant to let the actual liquid anywhere near the hands (or mouth) of a consumer, and what they’re supposed to tell you is that you have to let all those vapours dissipate completely before you take a bite, or swig. The problem is, not everyone who uses liquid nitrogen has been trained well enough to know what they’re handling, and how to safeguard those they’re serving it to.
We couldn’t help but wonder, where to from here? What if the ban in Haryana were extended to the rest of the country?
On the one hand, a wider ban could stifle creativity in the field, Tewari points out. But the upside – that the industry would be forced to become more educated – is far more important. Kalra agrees that a ban wouldn’t be a bad idea until the government can figure out the best way to control its use. “People have to start taking liquid nitrogen seriously and giving it the respect it deserves,” he tells us.
Right now, we seem to be pretty cavalier about an element that can basically kill you. From Chennai, in blatant contravention of safe practice (or common sense), an article on dishes that make use of liquid nitrogen encourages readers to “Savour the crystallised sweet pops even as fumes escape from your nostrils and mouth.” And just this weekend in Bangalore, at an ice cream parlour that specialises in nitro-ice creams, our double scoops were served over a cup that held liquid nitrogen, still bubbling. Even as they told us it was dangerous if mishandled, a server poured some of the liquid from a flask onto his bare hands (yes, really) to show that he knew what he was doing.
Currently, there are no certifications or licenses required to be able to use liquid nitrogen in India. Last we checked, there’s been no indication that the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is reviewing its regulations on liquid nitrogen either. Perhaps some sort of policy and protection wouldn’t be a bad thing.
But would the F&B scene feel well, a tad flat, bereft of all its smoky, bubbling drama?
Not really, counters Kalra. “Nobody goes to a restaurant just for the liquid nitrogen. There are plenty of other innovative things to look forward to, so a ban wouldn’t have any major impact.” ‘Progressive’ cuisine, the kind that Kalra has popularized through his restaurants, has, by most accounts, evolved to a post-molecular, post-modern stage. Even Adriá and Blumenthal have moved on to other playing fields.
Tewari said it was similar for bars. “I don’t think it’s so integral an ingredient that it will dramatically change things if we aren’t allowed to use it. The drinks you produce can still be tasty and beautiful without liquid nitrogen.”
The international cocktail scene does seem to have left the theatre of liquid nitrogen far behind. Trend pieces and forecasts for 2017 have been all about cocktails made with fermented beverages like kombucha, in-house infusions and DIY bitters, sodas and tonics, and even cocktails made with leftover or 'trash' ingredients, joining the fight against food waste. Classic flavours have staged a strong comeback – your old-fashioned Old Fashioned might now be laced with a cold brew, or bacon fat – leaving little room for showy smoke and flames.
The best part? Even if all this burns a hole in your wallet, at least your stomach is safe.
This story was contributed by Amrita Gupta, a journalist based in Bangalore. Her work has appeared in Time Out Bangalore, Mint Lounge, BBC Good Food India and Hindustan Times, among other publications. She is the associate editor at Nature inFocus, and the founder of Food Radio Project, a soon-to-launch podcast series on the nexus between food, agriculture and the environment in India. Follow her on Twitter @rainb0wt00, or on Instagram@sunshower123.
Image Credit: Farzi Cafe
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