A Computer Made This Sauce

Watson's sauce

And with the twist of a cap, food may never be the same again.  IBM’s supercomputer, Watson, can cook. And really well, apparently. IBM gave the supercomputer a huge list of food ingredients, their flavor profiles, and the basic understanding of what makes humans like the taste of certain things, and not like others. Watson did the rest, combining flavors and ingredients it mathematically chose, and created some really interesting sauces and recipes. While somewhat scary, it’s also pretty darn exciting, and promises a lots of new flavor combinations for future dinner tables. Via FastCo Design:

How the machine’s AI cross references three databases of information:

  1. A recipe index containing tens of thousands of existing dishes that allows the system to infer basics like “what makes a quiche a quiche”
  2. Hedonic psychophysics, which is essentially a quantification of whether people like certain flavor compounds at the molecular level
  3. Chemoinformatics, which sort of marries these two other databases, as it connects molecular flavor compounds to actual foods they’re in

Via FastCo:

[IBM] sent a lucky few journalists a beautiful bottle of Bengali Butternut BBQ Sauce, a golden, algorithmic elixir born from the silicon mind of Watson himself.

When I unwrapped the brightly colored box and found the bottle inside, I immediately flipped to the back label. Most BBQ sauces start with ingredients like vinegar, tomatoes, or even water, but IBM’s stands out from the get go. Ingredient one: White wine. Ingredient two: Butternut squash.

The list contains more Eastern influences, such as rice vinegar, dates, cilantro, tamarind (a sour fruit you may know best from Pad Thai), cardamom (a floral seed integral to South Asian cuisine) and turmeric (the yellow powder that stained the skull-laden sets of True Detective) alongside American BBQ sauce mainstays molasses, garlic, and mustard.

I pour a bit of the bottle onto a plate of roasted tofu and broccoli–even a pork lover has gotta watch his cholesterol–and tentatively took a bite. Watson’s golden sauce may have the pulpy consistency of baby food, but it packs a surprising amount of unique flavor.

Immediately, you can taste the sweet warmth of the wine and the squash. The tamarind blends seamlessly, backed by a duo of vinegars, to tickle your tongue with just the right amount of tartness. The other flavors combine to leave an indefinable, warm aftertaste that, as you have a few more bites, actually heats your mouth–thanks to Thai chiles.

I test it again and again. Finally I just slather my plate in the stuff. It’s delicious–the best way I can describe it is as a Thai mustard sauce, or maybe the middle point between a BBQ sauce and a curry. Does that sound gross? I assure you that it isn’t.


Watson can cook!

An infographic about Watson and the future of food



How Watson categorizes flavors and ingredients




Watson’s creations being served out of the IBM Cognitive Cooking food truck

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The Watson food interface.