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Pensive deviled eggs? Irate gazpacho?

MIT Media Lab's Hugo Liu has radical ideas about the future of recipes.

August 15, 2007|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

On a recent afternoon, given his choice of anywhere for lunch, Liu suggested a cab to the nearest Whole Foods, where he loaded a basket with a platter of local barbecue, an oozy wedge of Reblochon cheese and a bottle of artisanal kimoto sake, all to be eaten and drunk off plastic in the picnic seating area. He admits he was a picky eater until recently but has decided there are three A's to be mastered as a sophisticated consumer: acclimate (eat kale every which way), appreciate (decide it tastes good) and associate (describe it well enough to persuade someone else to try it).


Sensation elicits emotion

And it is the last verb that matters most to him, with his background in computational linguistics and his belief that "good tasters have to know not just words but be able to conjure meaning." He describes his favorite sake as "tasting like Carnation Instant Breakfast" but says someone else might note bananas, or even the heat of a banana boat. One day, he imagines, "customers could order words, not food -- 'Bring me some whimsical.' "

Liu says he found recipes extremely easy to parse in producing "The Synesthetic Cookbook," which analyzes 160,000 recipes "clipped" from the Web and broken down by 5,000 keywords for ingredients and 1,000 for descriptions (spicy, tasty). A user searching the database, which is behind an MIT firewall today, could call up a screen with a plate on it and order dinner ideas for the whole family. "Beef" would bring up countless possibilities but could be refined with "spicy," "herbaceous" and, especially, "comforting." Individual family members' likes and allergies could also be plugged in to decide on a dish.

The "cookbook" is a revelation not so much for the recipes, though, as for how they are ultimately summoned. Synesthetics is the physiological process in which a sensation elicits an emotion (or a sip of wine evokes a color), and Liu's unique original work contains 980,000 aesthetic associations and 100,000 contexts, or emotions.

But while his first "cookbook" draws on recipes already in existence, ones any computer user could find by the literal thousands on sites such as, "Gulp Fiction" is a leap into uncharted terrain. It reflects Liu's interest in collecting "words and virtualities -- uncooked recipes and imagined foods," hence the title.

The user of this program can have it write a recipe, selecting from essences Liu has programmed as being necessary to make a French, or a Cajun, or a Japanese dish. The fun is in the context: A request for "sad" oatmeal produces a recipe with red wine, beer, gin, vodka, brandy and soda; "poetic" pizza has no crust; "pensive" deviled eggs call for apricot preserves.

Judging by a demonstration in Liu's tiny shared office in the Media Lab, "Gulp Fiction" at this point is more "textual eating," as he describes it, than cooks' miracle. Ask it for an enchilada recipe, he explains, and it will produce "not any enchilada recipe but an essence of all enchilada recipes -- it doesn't copy any recipes." The ingredients it lists will need some pruning ("1/2 small Chinese," for instance, is not likely to be found in most refrigerators), and while its directions are lyrical and almost hypnotic, they are also whimsical to the point of nonsensical: "Sift the salt. Wash the bay leaf. Red the white pepper. Cheese the mayonnaise."

A halfway-seasoned cook can make a dish from "Gulp Fiction" work, however. And the program does combine ingredients even a thoroughly seasoned cook might not think to bring together in one bowl: shiitakes, anchovies and watercress in potato salad, say, or white chocolate, green tea powder, rose petals and cherries in ice cream.

Liu considers his latest work "food conjuring" and admits that "I get a kick out of reading this, but the kitchen chemistry has not kicked in." In short, it is not dissimilar from what many Internet junkies would call food porn, dishes to be drooled over rather than actually eaten.

"You can never take people out of the equation," Liu says. "But this takes the dull work out of their hands. It helps them focus on what humans are really good at." And that, he says, is more "testing than generating" recipes.

So why, given his cyberific devotion to them, does he hate recipes? "Why do you like speaking in fresh sentences?" he responds. "Recipes used to be handed down. They used to mean something. They meant something when it was Yaya's home cooking, but that's not what it means anymore. Someone you don't know is telling you something, and you don't know if you should trust them."

Now, a computer that understands you're hungry for elation -- that is a whole different dinner.



Demoniacal potato salad

Total time: About 1 hour, 30 minutes

Servings: 4 to 6

Note: Adapted from Hugo Liu's "Gulp Fiction" project.

12 medium new potatoes, preferably a mix of Red Bliss and Yukon Gold

Sea salt to taste

24 medium shiitakes, stemmed and caps wiped clean

3 tablespoons best-quality olive oil, divided

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