Artist-in-residence: Eating the zoogleal mat

by Rosemary Liss

This project was born out of a type of failure. The kombucha membrane is the perfect medium to tell this story. The look, the feel, colour, texture, flavour. I wanted to touch and taste. I found myself in a gelatinous substrate, a mother, a zoogleal mat. Suddenly I found a confluence of art and fermentation. I became obsessed.

Eating the SCOBY brought up rich and diverse imagery. Films where food stands in for sex: that scene in Tampopo where a mobster and his moll pass a raw egg yolk back and forth with their tongues in coital bliss; MFK Fisher’s budding sexuality conveyed in eating her first oyster. I find this appealing, some find this disgusting. Taste happens.

With these tropes in mind, I drafted some dishes using the mother. I paired SCOBYs with salt, cream, spice, smoke, umami agents. I used chartreuse-hued coal oil, mauve dashi, pink rose hips. Sometimes the SCOBY played a supporting role, sometimes as a focal point and ultimately as the narrator. With each experiment I asked: how can I create a dish that is playful and arouses all the senses?

seared duck heart, rhubarb, coal oil and kombucha mother

I worked on many different applications of the mother. From dehydrating it to form a shell enclosing brined duck tongues, to dicing it to juxtapose with blanched squid. I also made a variety of kombuchas to generate different types of mothers: rhubarb, elderflower, black pepper, cucumber and even one with oysters. I mixed the acidic liquids into creams and made sorbets and granitas, continuing to explore the possibilities. Fluffy steamed buns soaked up pepper kombucha granita and cucumber kombucha sorbet as it melted into smoked mackerel and kombucha-infused cream. Each new interpretation yielded interesting results, but I struggled with the chewiness of the mother and keeping kombucha the star.

two trials of mother and squid with rhubarb kombucha and søl dashi

I made cucumber kombucha dumplings from blended cucumber, separating the juice from the pulp through a fine mesh sieve. With the cucumber pulp I added a splash of rhubarb kombucha. Using a very young kombucha mother, I cut 7cm circles to create dumpling wrappers. I plated the dish by creating a small lake of cucumber juice at the bottom of a wide ceramic bowl. The kombucha skin wrapped around cooled cucumber pulp was finished with toasted caraway seeds, a few drops of olive oil and sea salt.

cucumber ‘dumplings’ with kombucha mother, caraway, and olive oil

Unlike other applications of the kombucha mother, the dumplings dish was on its way to success. The bite-sized dumplings and younger kombucha made it easier to chew through the mother. It provided a complementary balance between sweet and sour that paired nicely with the coolness of the cucumber. The toasted caraway seeds added a slight crunch and a hint of vegetal smoke. Unlike some of my other trials, this dish was well received. But I was also interested in the disgust factor and I wanted to push the relationship we have with food, sex and disgust through the use of the zoogleal mat.

Focusing on the mouthfeel of raw oysters, I made an oyster kombucha. When the mother was 5mm thick I cut a piece of the membrane into an oyster shape. I laid this new oyster in its shell and with a stroke of squid ink and a splash of dashi and suddenly the mother became the oyster.

the oyster mother ‘oyster’

There was a strange sensation when consumed. Slightly sour, salty and sweet the mother provided more chew than a real oyster and less burst of flavour, but still I found enjoyment in the gelatinous experience as it slid down my throat. Was this dish a novelty? Well-balanced? A success? That’s up to debate, but it provided me with a mind-manifesting object. Something happens in the brain and in the body when we try new things, as we build and dismantle preferences. Our likes and dislikes find companionship between past experiences and unknown futures. In the end, the kombucha mother may not become a popular menu item. As a food, it serves a different purpose.