It is easier to name the food items that don’t contain carbon than it is to list all the food stuffs that do contain carbon. Anything that was once alive – whether animal, fish, fruit or vegetable – contains carbon compounds. Carbon chemistry is usually referred to as organic chemistry because carbon is the basis of life on the planet. Only things like water (H2O), vitamin supplements and salt (NaCl) don’t contain any carbon. It would be impossible to live without consuming carbon compounds.
This means the great challenge for agriculture in the Twenty-first Century is not only to keep yield levels high enough to meet the demands of a growing world population, but also to make ever increasing amounts of food without increasing carbon dioxide and methane emissions. While vegetables and fruit grow by absorbing carbon dioxide, water and sunlight and turning it into energy, the process of preparing agricultural land with fertilizers and pesticides, using agricultural equipment and transporting food all traditionally rely on petro-chemical inputs whose production and use increase greenhouse gas emissions.
This post, however, is going to look at a few lesser known uses of carbon in food culture.
The most useful type of carbon in the kitchen is charcoal. In Asia they often use bamboo charcoal which contains extra properties such as ‘kun’ that is antimicrobial.
Charcoal has a very high surface area to weight ratio; activated charcoal even more so. As a result it is very absorbent (adsorbent actually) and having charcoal in the kitchen is a good way to remove bad odors from the air. Charcoal can also be used as a water filter. Lots of people have charcoal filters over their kitchen faucets.
Activated charcoal and activated bamboo charcoal is making a recent comeback in powdered form as a type of medicine. The charcoal will absorb and neutralize many poisons and toxins when ingested. In the Orient they have been using bamboo charcoal and bamboo vinegar for this purpose for centuries.
An old housewife’s trick to make soggy lettuce fresh and crisp again is to leave it in a container with a piece of charcoal overnight.
The Japanese sometimes use powdered bamboo charcoal to make the broth for some noodle soups. They also use bamboo charcoal when preparing pickles to make the vegetable chewy. Another common use of bamboo charcoal in Japanese cooking is in the fat when making tempura. The charcoal helps to keep the oil clean and to make the fried food crispier and more delicious.
Finally, both charcoal and bamboo charcoal are popular fuels for cooking. Many people prefer the taste of barbecued meats especially when cooked on charcoal. For connoisseurs the type of wood used to make the charcoal is of paramount importance for the final flavor of the food.
An advantage of cooking with charcoal is that charcoal is smokeless. This is a serious point because death from respiratory failure caused by cooking indoors with wood is the biggest killer of children in the developing world.
It is surprising how important carbon is to the subject to food. Not only is it the backbone of all food chains, but it is also a useful fuel, cooking condiment, a medicine, filter and air freshener.