For the last 3-4 months, I had been thinking a lot about holding a dinner party. I had been playing with several ideas in my head. And you know how ideas are like - they are screaming to come out of one’s head and into reality. So last month I decided to send out invites to 6 people, for a dinner party around the world.
For the dinner party I knew there had to be a theme. I originally started with the theme of “Layers”, but as time went on, I convinced myself that the theme would be too subtle. So I changed it to “Travelling Around Planet Earth”. But I still was very enamoured with the idea of layers in my dinner party. So I made a compromise. By the time the invites were sent out, the dinner party was called “A Trip Around Planet Earth”, with the theme of “Layers”
The Initial PlanThe initial plan was to serve different courses of meals that correspond to different continents of Planet Earth. The menu on the invite was this:
Not very useful information. But of course by the time I had sent out the invite, I had a very solid idea of what I had wanted to do. My invitees on the other hand, didn’t expect much.
There were a few things I had in mind that were vital in this dinner party. Each course (save the amuse-bouche) corresponded to a continent, and the food would correspond to foods found in that continent. I had to make my guests feel as though as they had been transported to those places. The amuse-bouche was to be the launchpad for the imaginative journey that were to begin.
I am a big believer that we eat with ALL our senses. That meant everything needed to be controlled, from the music in the background, to the scent in the air, to the ambient temperatures. Thankfully it was winter, so it was easier to control the latter with heaters.
Amuse-bouche: Lemongrass Prawn with Carrot and Ginger “Caviar”The amuse-bouche was a last minute idea. My original plan didn’t actually include an amuse-bouche nor an apéritif. However, upon tallying up the the dishes I had, it didn’t feel balanced. So I added the amuse-bouche just before I had sent out the invites. Hence the asterisk - in case I wasn’t able to come up with an idea, I’d not have an amuse-bouche.
Nonetheless, I did come up with an idea for the amuse-bouche. Many years ago, I had lamented anonymously on a gastronomy forum that there weren’t many particularly interesting uses of popping candy in a savoury dish. The problem was that popping candy reacts to water. So the choices of things that work with popping candy was limited.
I was very insistent on using popping candy as an ingredient in the amuse-bouche because as the first dish, it would signal the tone of the dishes that would come. I wanted it to be magical. I wanted my guests to get excited and find that child-like wonder when encountering this dish.
I had always figured that popping candy works well with highly intense flavours because when the candy pops, it sends extra gases into one’s nose retronasally.
Hence the idea was to have a highly fragrant dish that would have its flavours accentuated by the popping candy popping in the mouth. Lemongrass immediately came to mind - it is exteremly fragrant, and it works well with a number of things. I have had successes matching lemongrass with carrots and ginger in the past, so I thought why not do something with carrots and ginger - the flavours go very well together.
But how to present carrots and ginger in a nice single-serve? My thoughts immediately jumped to fancy hors d’oeuvres that I’ve had. A lot of them featured fish roe. So why not make carrots and ginger into a “caviar”* At around the same time the idea formed, I found Erin's blogpost which solidified the idea ? I have a spherification kit, and so I jumped to it.
Lastly the dish needed something to carry it. I jumped into the typical solution of scallops. But on the day itself, we couldn’t find scallops, and had to settle for some dodgy looking prawns.
To figure out the optimum amount of popping candy, my partner and I did a large amounts of tests - and we settled on the solution literally minutes before my guests arrived. The solution was to place 2-3 pieces of popping candy at the top of the spoon so that the candy goes in last, and creates the popping effect with the rest of the dish in the mouth.
Playing It Out in Real LifeTo start things off, the music in the background was Hedwig’s Theme from the Harry Potter’s OST, which I had always associated with magic and wonderment. I had also considered When You Wish Upon A Star, but I decided that lyrics were too confusing. The main point was to impart a magical moment as if my guests had entered a different world.
And so we started. I had the reaction I was looking for. My guests were doubtful at the dish in the beginning, but when the popping started, everyone visibly got a lot more animated. I’m quite glad to see that popping candy still holds some magical effect over people.
As for the flavours, it worked quite as expected - it was the ginger that was accentuated though, with the lemongrass forming a background hum in the mouth. One of my guests actually thought the piece of fried ginger. There was a obvious textural layering from the flesh of the prawn to the pop of the “caviar” to the crunch of the popping candy. There too were layers of flavour difference - the salty prawn followed by spiciness and sharpness from the “caviar” and finally a burst of sweetness from the popping candy.
After an initial round, I showed my guests how the dish and flavour was built, layer by layer, and then they helped themselves to future buildings of the dish. This interactivity was unplanned, and I liked it, so I decided to follow up with a guide on how to build the dish after each dish was presented.
Entrée: A Garden SaladFor a number of years now I had wanted to re-create Heston Blumenthal’s Garden Salad, but never had the opportunity. I had made the salad before, but never had the opportunity or need to dress it up. This was my chance at it.
With the sauce gribiche, it was the perfect first location - Europe - to land in. To me the dish really did embody everything European - classic French recipe, emboldened by mediterranean flavours. The acidity in the dish would make it a good entrée, preparing the audience’s palate for the upcoming dish, which was bolder.
In my original plan, I had wanted to make olive oil gummy worms to bury in the soil, and edible baby potato rocks. I then considered the psychology of my guests - a couple of them are quite squirmish, and won’t touch anything “weird” - and realized that had I put those in, I’d be teetering a very fine line between an enjoyable night and an awkward night.
Playing It Out in Real LifeThe music was changed to Mozart’s Concerto No. 21. When I think of Europe as a whole, I have a romantic image of classical musicians ruling the courts of the day, and I wanted to impart that. The intended scent of the meal was geosmin, to impart a ground-like/earthy/mossy smell as the guests dug into the salad. That didn’t turn out because I couldn’t acquire geosmin oil in Australia. I tried soaking cucumber in water and spraying it into the air but that didn’t do much.
I think the surprise was when the dish was brought out. Many comments were about how much of a shame it would be to dig into the dish. I think the acidity of the dish surprised my guests, as they didn’t expect it from a white-looking sauce.
This dish was layers in the sense that it was literally built in layers. The dehydrated olives and roasted pecans worked together to give the dish a meaty taste that cuts away the acidity. The vegetables were blanched and were deep green, but yet still were hard enough to be slightly crunchy. There was a good variety of texture in the dish, and I quote one of my guests, “it’s growing on me”.
Main Course: Chilli con Carne with Corn BreadI’ve made this chilli con carne many many times. I feel like it’s one of the best dishes I have made. I also didn’t have many opportunities to cook this, since the minimum amount of people this recipe works for is 8, and it’s quite hard to scale the recipe down* Scaling recipes can be quite difficult. I tend to use a weighted percentage-weight scaling for recipes .
Another consideration I had in mind when designing the menu was that almost all the food had to be cooked before hand. I had held a number of dinner parties in the past to know that I don’t want to be in the kitchen when my guests are in the dining room. A food that is cooked for the masses would be great.
Chilli con carne was chosen because it would also form part of the narrative - leaving the Old World (Europe) and entering the Americas. And really, I DO think that there isn’t a better dish to represent BOTH Americas. The dish was invented in the United States, but clearly with influences from down south.
Corn bread was also chosen because it pretty much originated from there. My corn bread was a little different from most. You see, I love mozarella cheese with my chilli con carne. It’s just fantastic. So when making my corn bread, I stuffed a bocconcini ball into the middle just before baking. This led to an eruption of cheese as it bakes.
Playing It Out in Real LifeThe music I had chosen was Con Mi Guaguanco (from Dexter’s OST). I didn’t have much exposure to South American music, so I hooked on to the closest thing I knew - OST from Dexter, which featured a lot of Cuban-esque music without lyrics. The playlist eventually steered into creepy Dexter music, which led to some hilarious comments about serial killers and Hannibal.
I had originally wanted to heat up the room as we entered this phase of the dinner party. Nature was plotting against me. It turned out if I used multiple heaters, the circuit breaker would trip. So that plan was abandoned. The scent was smoke (from burning some bamboo sticks in the kitchen).
The crowning glory of this dish was when one of my guests leaned in and told me “I know where you’re going with this dish, Chewxy”. I probed a bit further and he told me that the dish, with its smokiness, Jack Daniels sweetness and hot chilli evoked emotions of what America was. In particular, he said, it evoked images of cowboys. Mission accomplished. I was happy.
The dish itself tasted good. The beans, when they finally break open in the mouth, tasted of colas. There were many layers to the flavours of this dish - starting from the immediate hit of chilli, then the acidity of the tomatoes, and followed by the bittersweetness of the JD. It is then completed with a smoky aftertaste. I liked it quite a lot, though my partner found it more bitter than bittersweet. The majority of the comments about the dish was that it was kinda mild. I had actually decided to tone down the heat of the dish because I knew one of my guests didn’t do well with spicy food.
Dénouement: A Glass Of MilkI had expected the heat to get the better of my guests, so I designed this dish as a conclusion of sorts to the main course. Of course, from the Americas, specifically the United States, the next destination can only be something really cold - outer space.
The theme was travelling around Planet Earth, as well as layers. The dish had to satisfy both themes AND be functional enough to conclude the main course. The answer was to cool the palate, making outer space an obvious choice (the other choice was antarctica, but eh, it’s hard to make penguins). We know that milk cools the mouth really well after spicy food because capsaicin dissolves in fats. Other things that evokes emotion of cooling are cucumbers and melons - cold fruits and vegetables.
So why not a cucumber flavoured milk? But what of the layers? Cucumber flavoured milk is all that, but it’s just a single layer. Then I put two and two together.
Mention milk in outer space, and you’ll almost immediately get “Aunt Beru’s Blue Milk” as a response. Indeed, that’s kinda the line of thought. Aunt Beru’s blue milk is highly associative with outer space adventures (Star Wars for those who didn’t get the reference). And the best part is, nobody knows what Aunt Beru’s blue milk tasted like, and so I was free to imagine how it would taste like.
What if Aunt Beru’s Blue Milk had changing flavours? One minute it was cucumber, and the next minute it would taste like bubblegum, or hamburgers, or something.
Playing It Out in Real LifeFor this portion of the meal, the music was changed to the Binary Sunset theme from the Star Wars: Episode IV OST. In my mind, that’s one of the most powerful music I have associated with outer space and adventure and magic * the others are Also Spracht Zarathustra, the Alien main theme and the Star Trek opening themes, but this one is most obvious . I also opened the windows and doors to air the house to cool everything down, though that didn’t have much of an effect.
I think the best part of the meal for me was when one of my guest expressed surprise when the flavours changed. This dish had been nearly a failure. I had originally wanted to impart the flavours of my favourite sandwich - a cucumber sandwich - the layers would be: cucumber, butter, toast. However, a series of mishaps happened and I had only the cucumber portion set out. A last minute change was instead of fancier (and weirder) flavours like hamburger, or roast pork, I’d go with cucumber, followed by melon. And even that was a bit of a failure. I had accidentally left the rind of the melon into the milk to infuse, and it made the milk a little bitter. The last stuff up was I messed up my ratios, and instead of the cucumber infused milk being the denser milk, it turned out to be the less dense milk.
Which was why I was absolutely delighted when my guests slowly, one by one realized that the blue milk had changed flavours. I loved the magic. It was amazing to watch as their eyes widen and realized it went from one green flavour to another. Of course in retrospect, the more drastic the flavours were, the better the effect would have been.
Dessert: Thai Sticky Rice with Mango (Khao Niao Ma Muang)The dessert came next. And it had to top the magic from the previous dish. One of the best things to do would be to disguise a dish as another dish. And this dish in fact is also one that I’ve been dying to do - it’s Thai sticky rice with mango, except the plan was to make it look like a fried egg on rice.
Fried egg on white rice is amazing, especially if you pour a small amount of soy sauce on the egg. That was the concept I had in mind - the egg white would be made of coconut milk, the yolk made out of mango, and the soy sauce would actually be a gula Melaka syrup or caramel.
This dish also ties together a locale - Australasia. And also, it fits the layers theme - in more than one way. The perceptive layering was my main objective - I wanted my guests to perceive this dish as one thing, and realize it’s another.
It was the last proper dish, and had to set a memory. Unfortunately it didn’t go so well.
Playing It Out in Real LifeIf I had to do it again, I’d play Only For Love from The Banquet, a 2006 Chinese movie. There is a haunting beauty and sadness about that piece. But I had too, a rule about music without lyrics. Add to that the hustle of actually having to cook the “egg whites” for each dish individually, I didn’t actually manage to change the music that was playing.
Encouraged by the success of the amuse bouche, I tried to get my guests to make their own “egg yolks”. That didn’t go too well. When the ugly secrets are revealed, the magic is lost. There wasn’t as much magic or amazement when I completed the dish.
The dish itself too had some problems. It was under salted (salting the dish was part of the theatrics originally), and the mango wasn’t very sweet (I had been on a no-sugar diet for months before this, and I had thought it was very sweet).
Nonetheless, I think the reaction to the dish was still one of general (albeit muted) surprise - I think my guests had some difficulties wrapping their heads around the idea of coconut milk that was solid when it was hot, but liquid when cooled.
It was a very muted affair, my dessert. The recipe above has been updated with additional salt and sugar. Indeed, the backup cake was much better than this dish. :(
Digestif: Coffee and DatesAnd so we enter the last parts of the dinner party. The plan was to serve them a glass of cold-dripped coffee, and dates. It would be the Africa portion of the night - the last continent we had yet to touch. The original coffee I had planned to serve was an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. But a week before the dinner party, I stumbled onto some Colombian Geisha, which were rare beans with immense amounts of flavour.
Here’s how the cold drip tower I hacked up looked like (this was taken from a practice run I was doing a few days before the dinner party):
For me, I really loved the Geisha. It was a complex coffee, and bursting with flavours. And the best part was after eating a date, and taking a sip of the coffee again, the taste completely changes. The dates definitely do complement the coffee.
There wasn’t really any more changes to the environment because this is a wind-down course. We wound down over good tasty coffee and eventually moved on to Baileys on the rocks to wash everything down.
SummaryFor the table loving types, here’s a quick summary:
|Amuse Bouche: Lemongrass Prawn with Carrot and Ginger Caviar||-||Hedgwig's Theme||Fireworks/Gunpowder*†||Room Temperature|
|Entrée: A Garden Salad with Sauce Gribiche||Europe||Mozart's Concerto No. 21||Geosmin*†||Room Temperature|
|Main Course: Chilli con Carne and Corn Bread||The Americas||Con Mi Guaguanco†||Smoke||Heated room†|
|Dénouement: A Glass of Milk||Outer Space||Binary Sunset||Green Notes||Freezing Cold|
|Dessert: Fried Egg with Rice (Thai Sticky Rice with Mango)||Australasia||Only for Love*†||Lemon myrtle/Bush spice and red dust/rust*†||Warm†|
|Wind-down: Coffee and Dates||Africa||-||-||-|
Notes: * indicates the ideal choice from my point of view. † indicates that it was poorly executed on during the dinner party (when paired with *, it means it wasn’t done at all).
The AftermathAs with all dinner parties, it’s the social interaction that was most interesting. I had went into this dinner party expecting an exchange of ideas - afterall, my guests comprise of a digital advertising account manager, an adops expert , a marketing manager, a web developer, and a googler. Almost all of us had attempted a startup at one point or another. There was bound to be some interesting things that go on.
After the dinner party, we sat down and caught up with each others’ latest news. It was interesting. I had expected the night to be rather mind expanding, but it didn’t really turn out that way. It ended up mostly being a catchup of things that happened in our lives. I was okay with the way it turned out though, because it was actually rather fun. There were a lot of things to be shared and I definitely enjoyed myself. I hope my guests did too.
Key LearningsThings I learned from running this dinner party:
- Do as little cooking as possible during the duration of the dinner party
- For complex dishes, starting 2 days ahead of time is NOT ENOUGH
- Perform more dry runs
- Don't prepare food when intoxicated - math skills are impaired and you'd most likely get the ratios wrong.
- Don't reveal the secret of the magic too early - if the audience knows the secret, the magic is lost.
- I'll never run a restaurant.
- I'll definitely host another dinner party (been hosting them fairly often since 2011 anyway)
- I'll probably include more alcohol in future dinner parties