Meet the man behind India’s space food program. And all NASA ever gave us was Tang.
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) two years ago unveiled plans for a manned mission to outer space in 2016, for the bargain-basement cost of around $2.5 billion. But according to this week’s Open magazine, there’s one area where, predictably, nobody is cutting any corners: the khanna (grub).
If you’re planning one of those space tourism ventures, now’s the time to pay attention. Richard Branson, I’m talking to you.Dr K Radhakrishna, additional director of the Defence Food Research Laboratory (DFRL) in Mysore, has already come up with space idlis, sambhar powder, coconut chutney (hey, the guy’s South Indian). He’s mastered space yoghurt. And he’s hard at work on space rasgullas, according to the magazine. Can you say spinoff?
As Open puts it, Radhakrishna’s tiny space idlis (steamed cakes made from rice flour) “are the size of Rs 2 coins, accompanied by flaming orange sambhar powder and creamy coconut chutney dust. The idlis are cooked and dried using infrared radiation at a temperature of 700º C, and then further dried by microwaving. The moisture is zapped out of them, but not the taste, smell or nutrients.”
The idlis and sambhar are to be eaten after adding hot water; the coconut chutney needs only cold water. Each idli is 12 gm and swells to 25 gm when soaked in water. The desiccation makes it impossible for micro organisms like bacteria to grow and increases the idlis’ shelf life to more than a year. The removal of moisture also reduces the weight of food sharply, something crucial to the needs of both Isro and the armed forces. The sambhar and chutney are also dried completely with infrared radiation, a technology that has been used in the preparation of food over the past six years or so.
The rasgullas (cheese balls soaked in sugar syrup_ “look like white naphthalene balls (aka mothballs) and are freeze-dried from cottage cheese. Freeze drying involves chilling foods to temperatures from –20º to –40º C. It lets the moisture evaporate, but not the flavours. The rasgullas are then vacuum packed. The syrup comes separately as a powder that can be dissolved in water.
“Rasgullas are ideal for space,” says Radhakrishna. “They have a beautiful texture that doesn’t disintegrate easily like other sweets. It is compact. In space, it won’t do to have bits of food flying around. Remember, it is zero gravity.”I can tell you right now: Even if ISRO is exaggerating a wee bit, this stuff has gotta beat the hell out of Tang.