One of my more recent adventures was a trip to the massive city of Beijing, and experiencing the sprawling city was unlike any other thing I’ve ever seen. Even though the 3,000-year-old city holds more history than I could ever dream to learn thoroughly, it is also a true modern marvel with all of its architecture, transportation systems, and overall culture. Excited as I was about the entire experience, there is one thing that stood out to me especially while I was there; oddly enough it was these little purple mice that were served to us while enjoying some local cuisine.

It may be a strange fascination of mine, but there is really something to be said about the innovation surrounding even the smallest things when visiting technologically advanced cities. I think of places like Japan, with the highest number of vending machines for just about anything imaginable, or even their high-speed railways. China as well, with their technology production and manufacturing takes things like cell phones and computers to the next level. With the recent suggestion that Beijing itself has unseated the great Silicon Valley of the United States as the world’s foremost technology hub, it’s no surprise that even something as commonplace as sitting down at a restaurant some of their prowess would shine through.

As an established scientist but only an amateur chef at best, these mice made my jaw drop upon their delivery. I can only surmise that these gloriously sticky and squishy spheres were formed from seasoned red cabbage and hand decorated to perfection to achieve the shape, texture, and appearance. I was certainly fascinated at the sight of them, and yes, they were absolutely delicious.

The science behind these little guys is actually very fascinating. This process is called “spherification,” which is the current result of a long line of scientists developing their methods over time. In the last fifty years or so, culinary artists have transformed this process to benefit modern cuisine. Originally referred to as molecular gastronomy, which is a food science started with scientists looking at how food transforms chemically and physically while cooking.

In spherification, liquid is mixed with a small amount of powdered sodium alginate. Sodium alginate is found primarily in nature within the walls of brown algae, which is what gives the algae its thick and gummy texture. The acid, once refined, is used in a ton of modern products. Once mixed with the sodium alginate, the liquid is dripped into a bowl of calcium chloride, and there it forms into small, sphere shaped granules. Another common process along the same line is called “reverse spherification.” In this method, ingredients are used that may already contain calcium or alcohol. In this process, the ingredients are put into an alginate bath. Then, a gel membrane forms around the ingredients which are linked together by calcium ions. This enables chefs to create larger spheres with slightly longer shelf lives.

This art is commonly used to create flavored caviar-like balls of liquid both large and small. This can be done with just about anything in liquid form including alcohol, tea, milk, yogurt, or seasoned and pureed vegetables and fruit. Today, the technical method of molecular gastronomy is used to present very modern and artistic dishes. One of the most exciting things about science is that it is found everywhere we look. Cell phones, computers, cars, and so many more things are only the more current result of years and years of development. Even something as simple as these tiny, edible purple mice is representative of years of dedication of scientists and chefs alike.

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