The time is just past empty stomach in the afternoon, halfway between the cafeteria's pasta buffet and the night's dinner meal, which is sure to end up being takeout on the way home. Your stomach must be tended to, but a between-meal snack doesn't have to be bananas and Snickers. I have seen and tasted the light, and it is microalgae in a cup.
Algae in a cup: isn't that a meal for fish or people who extreme diet? Actually, microalgae is gastronomy's new favorite ingredient, and has resulted in a Danish creation called Onemeal.
To make a long story short, Onemeal is a snack in powder form, flavorful and with the newest and trendiest buzzwords: brown and white miso, pea protein, spirulina, and chlorella. Onemeal was created by chefs Francis Cardenau, Mikkel Marbjerg, and Nikolaj Kirk, who together seek to spread the joyful message that microalgae today is edible.
I am taken into the kitchen with Francis and Christina Høgh Selmer Kirk, the directors of Onemeal, in order to see just how much alchemy is necessary to create new flavors. The chefs have actually been experimenting for several years in order to make algae appetizing. "Microalgae tastes nasty," says Christina. "It almost tastes like fish food. It's a taste that is difficult to hide, and it has been a very big challenge for us. Microalgae is healthy, but if it tastes like an aquarium, people won't want to eat it."
Healthy is the least of their problems. If you were to go searching for superfoods, you would have trouble finding a food more super than this combination. Microalgae is one of the best sources of protein found in nature (with twice as much protein content as beef), and together with the other ingredients, it's an explosion of omega-3 fatty acids, iron, calcium, and vitamins, which together serve to soothe the stomachs of all of us who are too busy to eat healthy and varied foods every day.
The point is to do something healthy for the body, without coming at the cost of the environment. Therefore, all the ingredients are organic, and the creators are working on finding local sources of the products. There are a few producers of organic microalgae in Denmark, but unfortunately none produce the sheer quantity that Onemeal needs.
In order to test Onemeal's taste and attributes, I have given myself a challenge. Before I meet with Francis, I am going to live soley off of this algae-based powder soup for a whole day. Of course, that is not what Onemeal was created for, but I want to see what this kind of dosage of healthy superfood could do for my dilapidated body.
Torsten Rojas-Danielsen from Onemeal laughs a little bit at the idea. It shouldn't be a problem, health-wise, but he does want to warn me: "You can probably get a bit of an upset stomach that way. But, as Francis says: 'The same thing would happen if you ate foie gras all day.'"
As I daydream of a day eating nothing but fat goose liver, I pour the green powder into a glass for my breakfast and get myself ready for a day on an algae diet. "What is that?" my colleague skeptically asks. The mixture reminds me of thin mud with a deep, green color- it matches the smell. The smell is of fish food, but also not. Thyme and miso uplift the aroma. It tastes better than it smells, and reminds me of a type of Japanese powder-based soup.
By about two o'clock, I have finished my third portion. Experts would say that I need to eat 15-20 Onemeals throughout the day in order to get enough calories, but that doesn't seem realistic. A side effect (or a bonus, depending on whether one asks my tastebuds or my heart) is that I drink a lot less coffee, because I always have a glass of warm liquid with me. On the other hand, I can always slightly notice the consistency of algae. My tongue feels like the time I chewed coca leaves, but without the numbing effect and the euphoria.
By the time I reach the seventh portion, I begin to freestyle. I needed something to chew, so first I add a portion of elbow macaroni and then a handful of grated cheese. It gives it a much needed transformation, and the night's last Onemeal goes down without a problem.
The next day, Francis is thrilled to hear about my experiments with adding things like pasta to their product. I shouldn't feel guilty that I had mixed things together. "We are always trying new things all the time to find the right taste and balance. Let's try some maca," he says, and fishes out some Peruvian cress and freeze-dried blueberries. It is clearly not the point that Onemeal just serve as a snack.
"I sometimes use it as a spice," says Christina. "Just a spoonful on top of sautéed vegetables. Francis once made tomato soup, and we poured a spoon of Onemeal in—it tasted fantastic."
Francis stirs the new blueberry and rosewater mixture. The purple solution tastes good, but it has taken on the wrong consistency. "Of course, I should have used warm water!" exclaims Francis and grabs a new bowl. He adds the other bowl to the growing pile of various attempts, in between miniature bottles of essences and scents of all kinds, as well as matcha, wasabi, and proteins. "You can't spill this stuff," he says as he adds a pinch of chlorophyll to his newest concoction. "It costs 5,000 kroner a kilo."
The sweetness of the blueberries, combined with vinegar, chili, and some other items work well together and create a markedly different taste from the original with the pea protein. It's the first step on the way to creating a type of dessert product that will satisfy those that normally crave something sweet to satiate themselves when they're a little hungry.
One of the hardest things about eating Onemeal for a whole day is that there isn't anything to chew on. Because the product was created as a snack, this isn't so relevant for most consumers, but the team is conscious of the issue. "We are considering freeze-dried pieces of tofu or vegetables as part of the mixture," says Christina, "so you get a little texture."
In the kitchen, Francis continues his experiments. In the middle of an intense combination where more and more wasabi is being added, until his eyes are swimming in tears, he suddenly gets an idea and begins to rummage through the cabinets. He comes up with tahini and sesame oil and immediately mixes it together with miso, spirulina, ginger, pea protein, and chlorophyll. He begins to sing that song about Cruella de Vil (in French, of course), and when he adds the last ingredient he does a little dance. It seems he's done something right.
"This tastes really great!" declares Christina, and she's right. The heavy sweetness from the sesame seeds and the discrete, sharp vinegar provide a good contrast for the microalgae, which pleases me. It's almost better than the original. Francis sees some potential, but his Michelin-trained taste buds have already moved on, and he begins to discuss the possibility of toasted sesame.
When I leave the kitchen, they are at work on yet another mixture and I still have the taste of miso and lemna in my throat. If Francis and the team behind Onemeal are to be believed, I should get used to that. Microalgae is part of the diet of the future, whether we want it to be or not.