In the beginning, there was no fire to cook with… and man had smaller brains, and no idea how to eat well.
It would be a very rare (or pampered) person who has not attempted to cook something once in a while. I cook quite a lot, when I am allowed, at least – and I always find the cooking process fascinating.
Cooking is biology, chemistry and physics combined with a modicum of mathematics if one breaks down the processes involved. I like science a lot and work with maths at my day job as a global financial risk specialist, so I find that the processes involved in cooking are always worth investigating under the microscope.
Let’s start with a simple fact. If not for cooked food, the human race would be far worse off today. So the invention, or rather, the use of fire for cooking, was absolutely critical for the evolution of modern man.
Put simply, without heat to kill the bacteria and parasites in meat and water, and to make food much easier to digest, prehistoric man would have perished at an even younger age than usual – it has been estimated that the human body was designed to live up to 28 years only, and without cooked food, it would have been considerably shorter.
Later on, man discovered that boiling grains in water made various plant-based foods edible – before boiling, many grains and plants are indigestible and so the discovery provided an invaluable new source of nourishment.
This new source of food had the advantage of being pretty renewable. This meant that prehistoric man did not need to trek far every day to hunt for animals or forage for fruits, but could grow his own crops near home, and had his diet augmented with a few domesticated animals.
So foodies could rewrite history this way: As a direct result of cooking, communities, villages and towns were made possible.
Talking of lifespans, it’s not all about cooking – medical advances also played a huge part in lengthening human lifespans along with sanitation, safe housing, education, etc.
However, the expectation that everything we ingest today needs to be safe means that cooking is one of the most critical components of modern life. Nobody now eats a chicken that’s just been killed, spitting out the feathers while chewing the flesh – and certainly everybody is aware of the importance of treating or boiling water before drinking.
It didn’t really taste nice, but...
So what did the barbecues of prehistoric man taste like? Well, I imagine it would not have been too pleasant as he very likely did not have seasonings like cooking salt or spices to flavour the food. And he would have been burning wood and leaves, which would have added an extreme degree of smoke and burnt carbon to the taste. So it’s not your Sunday roast chicken or satay that he would have been enjoying.
But whatever the taste, the folks who ate cooked food lived longer and better than the others who didn’t cook. And so it became an evolutionary prerequisite to cook food before eating it. This rule is something that we still observe today, except for a curious development where a bunch of folks had the funny idea that raw food is better for you – but more about the raw food diet another day.
Cooked food is much easier for the body to digest and this allowed for smaller intestines in humans. As a consequence – pay attention now, this is important – this led to humans having larger brains.
The reason is that smaller intestines means that less energy is needed for digestion and the excess energy is diverted to the development of bigger brains – fossil records indicate increases in cranial size began when our distant ancestors began to use fire. Cooking certainly is food for thought!
Quite a few things have happened between those primitive BBQs and the delicious variety of cooked food that we consume today. Modern food is usually superbly cooked, well-seasoned, generally fresh, quite tasty, and of course, safe to eat.
Somewhere along the line, the human race learnt the processes which control not only the safety but also the tastes and textures of food – and this is a very important development, for this greatly adds to the variety and enjoyment of modern life.
How fire changes the nature of food
Let’s revisit what heat does to food. Cooking denaturation is the process by which proteins and cells change their structures due to heat. It is why lumps of meat initially turn tough when boiled – the heat denatures protein strings into tightly bunched coils. Continued use of heat and liquid eventually break down these coils into looser strands and the meat gets soft again.
Some foods denature more easily – many fried leafy vegetables denature into a soft mush quite easily, especially when liquid is present.
Something that all cooks need to know – at the very least – is something called the Maillard reaction (pronounced as my-YAR). This is a complex chemical process which creates flavours from the proteins and sugars present in food.
When you roast a chicken and it starts to brown, you are witnessing the Maillard reaction; in simple terms, it is the browning of food. And all chefs know that this is a very important part of building taste in cooked food – the Maillard reaction is why the golden brown fried chicken tastes better than the pale poached chicken.
To give you a visual perspective: If denaturation is a sturdy wall, the Maillard reaction is the colourful room mural on which the taste of a cooked dish is painted.
Using other people’s mothers
Back to cooking; this brings me to the curious fact that many cooks around the world still do not actually understand how and why food gets cooked, how flavours steal into and infuse the meals we eat, what makes a dish taste good on the palate, and the way the textures and tastes of meats and other ingredients evolve during cooking.
Most people around the world cook simply by following recipes handed down from previous generations – cooking is almost like a language which people absorb without a second thought, and they speak this language by reproducing meals which taste good and wholesome, just like "mother’s home cooking".
That is because it generally is mother’s home cooking! People these days also do their cooking using recipe books or websites or mobile apps and that’s really not unlike learning to cook by borrowing somebody else’s mother. Or a bunch of other people’s mothers. And so it goes.
Cooks may vary recipes to some degree, experimenting with the vast array of ingredients and exotic spices available in any modern supermarket, but fundamentally, with the prime exception of molecular cooking, most home-cooked meals are adapted from recipes which are centuries old but cooked with ingredients which are available to modern cooks, usually also while using modern kitchen equipment.
Modern cooking is a constantly evolving process – over time, through experimentation and trade, humans learnt about new ingredients and spices. New techniques are also invented. The use of these ingredients and methods means that more flavours and food textures could be created for consumption. The ingenuity and complexity of modern food is now almost limitless, as witnessed by the range of restaurants or supermarkets in any modern city.
> In a fortnight: The Maillard reaction and how it creates delicious tasting food.