Over the last few years, as a food writer and restaurant reviewer, I’ve come to accept an immutable fact that nothing is sacrosanct when it comes to saving a few bucks and another valuable kitchen commodity—time. A vicious cycle involving canny manufacturers influencing lazy chefs, and bottom line-greedy restaurateurs at the apex. Who in turn hoodwink their diners with ersatz products and subpar dishes. The prices of which the diner wants as low as possible. Quality and more importantly safety of ingredients be damned.
It started with fake, soy-based eggless mayonnaise (“to appease the vegetarians,” they copped out!) and insidiously progressed further on to appropriate everything from caviar and whipped cream, to the latest craze of truffle oil, as you’ll soon see. Why, there’s even an entire book called Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee by Bee Wilson dedicated to the history of food chicanery.
Oil Is Not Well
You’d have to be living under a rock, if you’ve not been having more than your fair share of everything ‘truffled’ these days. From pizzas, pastas and even gelatos copiously drizzled with so-called truffle oil—it’s the new musky, earthy flavour of the last few seasons we can’t get enough of.
But did you know that save for a very tiny percentage of places—that actually do go all out and wow your taste buds with oil actually steeped with prohibitively expensive real truffle shavings—an overwhelming majority offers you a fake and potentially toxic duplicate version? This one has as its base regular olive oil that is flavoured with an additive called a mercaptan. This particular one is a truffle-adjacent, scented petroleum by-product called 2,4-dithiapentane. Now this also happens to be a mercaptan similar to the one used in your homes’ LPG gas that gives it its...well, gassy odour!
Quick to call such spurious products a “remarkably successful con”, is chef Radhika Khandelwal of the two outposts of the Fig & Maple restaurant, in New Delhi and Goa. “The reason fake truffle oil is the worst (offender) is because people have started associating its pungent flavour with the real thing,” says Khandelwal. And rightly so, for a true truffle is much milder and subtle in flavour when pitted against the chemically-enhanced, flavoured oil.
Who Moved My Cream?
As a highly lactose tolerant and dairy obsessed person, what really breaks my heart about such dupes, is to bear witness to an entire new generation growing up without ever fully knowing what real whipped cream looks and feels like. Rarely to ever relish that unctuous mouth-feel, the off white hue and that ever-so-mild, salty tang of actual dairy cream.
This, thanks to the influx, nay, virtual takeover of those non-dairy, mostly hydrogenated palm oil-based, super white coloured fake whipped cream brands. Artificial stabiliser- and emulsifier-pumped up dupes that look and taste probably like what shaving foam does! Almost everywhere I go these days, I see them used with impunity. Most often topping an advertised as “fresh cream” fruit gateau. Or perhaps, sprayed from a can to crown an (oat milk?) iced latte. But worst of all, as a blob carelessly plonked down upon a plate of allegedly buttermilk pancakes. My favourites.
However, making a three-pronged case for its rampant proliferation—as used by herself and her fellow bakers and pâtisserie shops—as the de facto ‘whipped cream’ is Shweta Mutreja Aggarwal of Mumbai’s Kookie Cake Crumble. “While I do agree that nothing will ever come close to the look, texture and taste of real whipped cream, it is so much more cost effective, vegan-friendly and easier to use,” Aggarwal argues. The last point being the operative one for her, as all she needs to do is whip it straight from the carton into a chilled bowl for just five minutes. “No labouring for a good 20 minutes as one does with regular cream and no fear of it splitting due to over-whipping.”
Cost does, however, come into play when one talks of using expensive ingredients like actual caviar vis-a-vis fake caviar. Real sturgeon caviar can cost anywhere upwards of a whopping USD 20,000 per kilogram in the open market. This, as opposed to the mere USD 40 per kilogram for the fake stuff mass produced in places like China and Thailand.
These dupes can even be made in-house I’m told by those in the know. Simply by combining fish stock along with gelling agents such as sodium alginate and reactors like sodium chloride. All this, to create small caviar-esque beads through a molecular gastronomically-charged scientific process known as spherification.
And that pearlescent grey-black shade of caviar? That’s simply black squid ink. As for other fake iterations of fish roe like the green tobiko (flying fish roe) and ikura (salmon roe) seen atop sushi and poké bowls, all that’s substituted from the original recipe is green food colouring for the former and reddish-orange for the latter.
Japan Via The Lab
Speaking of Japanese preparations, given the sheer expense and logistics behind importing in quality ingredients directly from Japan to keep things authentic, this is one cuisine that sees more than just caviar and roe being duped. Read: caramelised saline water combined with glutamic acid and high fructose corn syrup to mimic a viscous shoyu (soy sauce) and tamari (wheat-free soy sauce). Slivers of local young ginger dipped in pink food coloured water masquerading as the delicate Japanese gari ginger. Or perhaps, plain old green coloured horseradish paste mixed with mustard and corn flour standing in for the sinus-blasting wasabi. The possibilities of faking it are endless, it seems. Something that those in the food business say will continue till the diner is fully empowered.
“It’s a classic case of the blind leading the blind with low benchmarks already existing due to lack of consumer awareness,” says Harry Hakuei Kosato, India representative and director at Kikkoman soy sauce who also runs the pan-India Sushi and More chain of Japanese cuisine cloud kitchens. “Till the diner doesn’t demand the bang their buck deserves in terms of authentic, quality ingredients, the chefs and restaurateurs will continue this game of deceit.”
Weighing in on this is chef Rahul Sharma of Araku Café, Bengaluru where processed foods are a big no-no. However, he admits to being ‘forced’ to use dupes like artificial caviar and palm oil whipped cream as an apprentice chef years ago. “And this was at various big hotels where the prices charged to diners are always high, but quality as low as any small, cost-cutting eatery offers,” says Sharma, who adds that it needn’t be so. “I don’t buy the vegan or cost angle. As for whipped cream, there are so many natural alternatives like cashew or coconut cream whipped with aquafaba (chickpea water) to achieve the same results as regular dairy cream. I firmly believe that lack of imagination and integrity is killing everything in the F&B industry these days.” Well said.