Sugar, spice and all things iced

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 December, 2011, 12:00am


What do 21st-century scientists eat when living and working in places that cannot support human life? Almost anything, as long as it comes with chilli sauce, says Dr Steve Pointing from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Hong Kong. Pointing's research takes him to some of the most inhospitable places on the planet.

'We work with Nasa studying arid deserts - hot, cold and polar - looking at the kind of conditions we might expect to find on Mars,' says Pointing. 'We try to understand how life has evolved and survived under the most extreme conditions.'

At the end of this month he returns to the driest and coldest desert in the world - the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica.

It is 100 years since Roald Amundsen became the first man to reach the South Pole during what is known as the heroic age of polar exploration. Other expeditions of the era, led by British scientist-explorers such as Sir Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton, struggled with the logistics of carrying enough food.

Amundsen famously ate his sled dogs along the way, and Scott's party ate their ponies, suffered from scurvy and all died. South, Shackleton's memoir of his 1914 expedition, reveals they ate a lot of seal and penguins while conducting scientific research on the Antarctic coast. He describes fried seal blubber as tasting a bit like crisp bacon. 'The hardship would come if we were unable to get it ... I think the palate of the human animal can adjust itself to anything,' he wrote.

Pointing says that conditions are a world away from the heroic age, but they still sound pretty tough. Fortunately, eating any protected species is definitely off the agenda and modern underwear and cold weather gear beats woolly jumpers and reindeer-skin sleeping bags hands down. Today, the New Zealand Antarctic Institute at Scott Base supplies the HKU scientists with food, water and fuel for their time 'on the ice' and trains the scientists in how to survive the climate before flying them by helicopter to the remote camps.

Weight is always an issue on the helicopter, so all the items are considered carefully. On days when they walk for up to 10 hours to collect samples, the scientists try to eat 5,000 calories. The high-calorie intake may sound like licence to eat as much as you can. But appetites fade when tastes and texture are affected by the cold, dry climate.

'Water is the biggest challenge - there's less than 50mm of rainfall a year. You can't afford to waste it or spill it, and you need at least three litres a day to stay hydrated,' says Pointing. Antarctic ice is too salty to be useful, and washing with it is out of the question.

Breakfast is porridge with lots of cinnamon and sugar. Soon after, the scientists tuck into cheese, salami and crackers for a high calorie and protein intake. On sampling expeditions away from camp they take nuts, chocolate, and energy and protein bars. In the evenings, Pointing likes to cook for the team. Shackleton used seal blubber for fuel, but today propane gas is used. This is unreliable if temperatures fall below minus 20 degrees Celsius.

Fresh food lasts for the first week of camp. After that, dinner is based around rice, pasta, a few tins, dried meat and specialist 'survival' food in foil packets. The cold, arid climate seems to render everything tasteless.

'The cold changes the texture and feel of foods in a very obvious way. Chocolate doesn't have that melt-in-the-mouth quality - you have to wait for ages,' says Pointing. 'Because it's so cold you can't smell anything properly, the aromas just don't circulate.'

What does make a difference is chilli: 'It's the only thing we can really taste, and it makes it possible to eat as much as we are supposed to,' he says. Pointing takes about two litres of garlic-chilli sauce, made by his 93-year-old father-in-law Chan Fai-yim. Other scientists bring kimchi and Tabasco sauce.

After ignoring the box of yellow semolina in their supplies on his first two trips, Pointing made a culinary breakthrough. 'We've found couscous is a good option. It is the food of the desert nomads,' he says. 'It doesn't congeal, it absorbs flavours well and we can add lots of different things to it.' Nuts and dried fruit always work well with couscous, and Chan's sauce is similar to harissa (a North African chilli paste). But Pointing's top tip for desert chefs is to 'add tonnes of curry powder' and dried meat to their couscous.

Back at Scott Base, relaxing in a comparatively warm environment, the senses of smell and taste return.

That's around about the same time that everyone realises what happens when you don't wash properly for a month.