A Fish Without Bones
of meat glue
story by Lily Mihalik
photos by Chloe Aftel
Richie Nakano’s pork shoulder
wrapped in chicken skin combines the qualities of braising
WYLIE DUFRESNE went to
Harvard to talk about meat glue.
“We’ve often been accused of things like
playing God,” said the bespectacled chef and food scientist
to a room packed with eager students. Behind him, a bonded
block of chicken consommé jiggled.
“Meat glue,” he’d later say from his New York office, “makes
us better chefs.”
Meat glue is made of enzymes called transglutaminases,
which bond protein molecules together. Once considered a
crude tool for food manufacturers, the epoxy has recently
caught on with haute cuisine chefs like Dufresne who use
it to fuse bacon to cod medallions, say, or to de-bone and
restructure lamb. The strange and intricate multispecies
meat sculptures made possible with the adhesive make the
once-outrageous turducken look rudimentary and unimaginative.
Once considered a crude tool for food manufacturers,
meat glue has recently caught on with haute cuisine chefs.
Often credited with bringing the powdery
white enzyme to American cuisine, Dufresne, who owns the
edgy New York restaurant wd~50, says some 40% of high-end
chefs now use the stuff.
In the United States, meat glue is most commonly sold under
the label Activa TG, which is manufactured and marketed by
the Japanese food and pharmaceutical giant Ajinomoto. The
company, whose name translates as “the essence of taste,”
also credits itself with the discovery of umami — a taste
described most simply as savory — and is the world’s largest
manufacturer of monosodium glutamate, or MSG. Ajinomoto operates
in over 23 nations worldwide, where it widely markets several
versions of the meat glue, each one modified for a specific
type of flesh or protein, including fish, red meat, and even
Long used in cheap, reconstituted meat
products like chicken nuggets, the enzyme first showed up
on a swanky menu in 2004 when chef Heston Blumenthal made
a “mackerel invertebrate” by de-boning a fish and gluing
it back together. Blumenthal owns the Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire,
England, which some critics consider the best restaurant
in the world. Since then, the binding agent has been championed
by other chefs attracted to such gastronomic trickery, like
Dufresne, and Grant Achatz at Chicago’s restaurant Alinea,
who was once called the “love child of Julia Child and Einstein.”
Meat glue is now so popular that Ajinomoto
is considering offering smaller-sized, more consumer-friendly
packaging for home cooks. While Ajinomoto declined a request
to release specific sales figures for meat glue, the company
did acknowledge a rapid uptick in sales. “The business is
increasing every year significantly,” said Guy Tinay, Ajinomoto’s
account executive for Canada and much of the United States.
Richie Nakano, chef of Hapa Ramen in San
Francisco, demonstrates how he uses Activa TG to make his
dish “the Chicken and the Egg” — a slow-cooked egg wrapped
in a deboned chicken leg, panko-fried, and served with pickles
and seasonal vegetables.
gave his talk, called “Meat Glue Mania,” at Harvard in December
as part of a research project in which Harvard students are
conducting laboratory molecular gastronomy experiments. Dufresne’s
wd~50 partnered with students to troubleshoot innovative
applications for meat glue, taking on scientific culinary
challenges like making noodles out of peanut butter or creating
sliceable hot Jell-O.
Although meat glue has been a common
ingredient in deli meat, Asian fish cakes, and imitation
crab, the chef’s talk, and the students’ enthusiasm, signal
that meat glue is going upscale and mainstream. Anyone who
has recently ventured into the fine-dining circles of San
Francisco, New York, or London has probably eaten it.
made from cow, pork, or even guinea pig blood, the glue is
not without its critics. In May 2010, a blood-based form
of the enzyme, called thrombin, was outlawed in the European
Union. Ajinomoto’s glue is made from fermenting enzymes found
in soil and is vegetarian until it comes in contact with
animal protein. European lawmakers and skeptics have lobbied
against even the vegetarian version, arguing that meat glue
means more handling, and thus more potential for contamination
by food-borne pathogens like E. coli.
“It’s dangerous to
think about meat glue as a way to save money, cobbling together
extra pieces to make something else,” said Dave Arnold, who
teaches food science at the French Culinary Institute in
New York and runs the food technology blog “Cooking Issues.”
The trial lawyer Bill Marler, who has represented food-borne
illness victims since the Jack in the Box E. coli O157:H7
outbreak in 1993, said that gluing pieces of meat together
could increase the chances for adulterants to find their
way into food.
Some 48 million people are sickened and
more than 3,000 die each year from food-borne illnesses in
the United States alone, according to the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention. Still, the United States Department
of Agriculture has yet to place any restrictions on the glue
and considers it “generally recognized as safe.”
fans feel it is a crucial tool for expanding the repertoire
of experimental chefs. “Kitchen cleanliness is not the ingredient’s
fault; that’s up to the chef,” said Dufresne. “People have
been manipulating food ever since they realized cooking a
whole animal was difficult. Cows don’t come in hot dog form.”
Dufresne has concocted all manner of playful
and bizarre food products with meat glue, including shrimp
spaghetti, which he made by mixing salt, cayenne, deveined
shrimp, and meat glue in a blender. Next, he pushed the slurry
through a fine sieve to mimic the smooth, bouncy texture
of pasta dough. Dufresne added shrimp oil before forcing
the shrimp goo through a Japanese noodle maker into 131-degree
water. More recently, Dufresne’s wd~50 served up flap steak
adhered into flawless cubes. On another occasion, casingless
rabbit kidney sausages, made by mixing traditional sausage
ingredients with glue, were served. Other applications are
even more innovative, like impregnating fruits and vegetables
with gelatin before fusing them with Activa TG. Meat glue
is a basic building material for those chefs who want to
defy conventional anatomy and forego the confines of nature.
“Most people are just starting with this stuff,” said Dufresne.
Despite recent news articles with headlines
like “Meat Glue: The Meat Industry’s Dirty Secret,” more
people than ever before are using the adhesive. Companies
and private inventors are applying for patents containing
transglutaminase, including ones for “Shaped cheese reconstruction”
and “Process for producing nugget food.” Chefs are devoting
chapters of cookbooks to glue.
Take Ideas in Food, the debut
cookbook of Levittown, Pennsylvania-based food bloggers and
chef-consultants Aki Kamozawa and Alexander Talbot, who were
introduced to meat glue by Dufresne. The couple spends a
full 10 pages on glue, with recipes for Shrimp Mosaic, Goat
Cheese Dumplings, and Turkey Thigh Roulade. “Transglutaminase,”
they write, “is a tool for efficiency and creativity.” In
a phone interview, Talbot likened meat glue to other ingredients
re-popularized in recent years by chefs. “Fifteen years ago,
you didn’t see arugula; now it’s everywhere,” he said.
at Harvard, Dufresne encouraged students to experiment and
bend the boundaries of food and form. “Lobster to a chicken?
No problem,” he said. “Go for it, man — whatever you want
to glue, glue!”
LILY MIHALIK is
a multimedia and print journalist covering food, science,
and the environment. Her father used to eat bear bologna,
but she much prefers the taste of moose. To find more of
her work check out The
new site covering all-things food and health.
CHLOE AFTEL splits
her time between Los Angeles and San Francisco. You can see
more of her work at chloeaftel.com.
This article originally
appeared in Meatpaper Issue Fifteen.