Meet the Team of Researchers Creating a Democratic Noodletopia

Researchers from the Tangible Media Group at MIT blew minds recently when giving their paper on a possible re-brand for the much-maligned instant noodle culture. Their new breed of supernoodle, still being developed and refined, is a flat-pack, design-your-own variety of 3D printed shapes with all the flavour and texture of your favourite dish, but without the limits. Just add water, and the flat shapes pop-up into any number of pre-programmed 3D structures.

The noodles are composed of flat sheets of gelatin with edible starch patterns 3D-printed onto the surface, that curl into 3D shapes when dropped into water due to differences in the density of the gelatin (causing the pieces to expand to different sizes), and the edible cellulose layer (which further controls the gelatin’s water exposure). Any die-hard foodies think this sounds suspect? No problem, the taste is “good enough to serve” according to the team, thanks to the team’s use of natural extracts for flavouring.

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But why, beyond the clear novelty attraction?

“We did some simple calculations, such as for macaroni pasta, and even if you pack it perfectly, you still will end up with 67 percent of the volume as air,” Wen Wang, a co-author on the paper points out. The team’s software is open-source, allowing users to theoretically design their own shapes to make their own personalised ‘pasta’, and to democratise the design process to suit the specific user needs. The 3D printing can be done at home, and the team at MIT have compiled a database of the possible noodle shapes alongside computational models, and have worked them into an online and easy (or, at least, easier) to use interface.

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The dynamic nature of these ‘pop-up’ noodles adds an extra performance drama to their preparation, an element explored by the team when they teamed up with the head chef at one of Boston’s top restaurants. They co-developed a number of dishes, including a flat disc that wrapped around caviar beads into a type of ‘cannoli’, and spaghetti composed of two types of gelatin with different melting points, so that the noodles divide into smaller pieces when submerged in hot liquid.

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Appetites whetted, we chatted things over with Wen Wang, a former graduate student and research scientist at the MIT Media Lab, and Lining Yao, lead author of the paper and a former graduate student at MIT.

THE PLUS: Honestly, how do these noodles compare in taste and texture to regular ones?
Wen Wang:
We are still in a preliminary research stage, especially in terms of texture. We hope to further improve the food mouthfeel by expanding our food material pool to other edibles beyond gelatin and cellulose.
 
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TP: Besides flat-packing, are there any particular applications you’re especially excited about? 
WW:
We hope to make a “nutrition precise” food to target people with diabetes or with special food needs (e.g. food allergy). 

Lining Yao: We also hope the online way of customizing your own shape of food can democratize food design; this can be used for mountain hikers, space travellers, or any situations in which space is precious.

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TP: 3D printers seem to be useful everywhere nowadays – including in your pasta. Do you see the future of food as printed?
WW:
We believe in future food printing that can be used to avoid food waste (print the right portion based on the demand), decrease the chance of food allergy (such as peanuts and gluten), and improve our health (add additional supplements like vitamins).
 
TP: Besides shape-shifting noodles, do you have any favourite new food trends?
WW:
Food from alternative protein sources, e.g. insects. 
 
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TP: In what other ways do you think we need to be changing our food consumption habits in the 21st century?
WW:
Less food waste, more healthy ingredients, and better quality with trusted sources. 
 
TP: Any calls from Heston Blumenthal yet?
LY:
I’m in touch with a experimental chef from his lab at Fat Duck. Apparently they were very inspired by it and they have already duplicated some variations of the experiments… We now have an open invitation from them to visit if we are in London.

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