Dirt. It's What For Dinner

Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa never intended to like the soil soup recipe he developed for his Tokyo restaurant Les Création de Narisawa. He created it with distilled soil from his own rural village to remind urban dwellers of their connection and responsibility to the earth, hoping the message would inspire them to become advocates for our ailing environment. And then he tasted it: "It was a revelation," he exclaimed at Copenhagen's MAD Foodcamp last month. "If soil is sourced and cooked properly, it can actually taste good."

Chefs might be willing to add soil to their restaurant menus, but convincing diners to transcend the stigma attached to "eating dirt" presents a daunting challenge. Although Narisawa did not offer advice on how to persuade a customer to brave their first bite, he assured the crowd at René Redzepi's symposium that if prepared correctly, this ultimate form of terroir delivers more than an environmental message, it's also loaded with flavor. He explained that soil appeals to the palate because it's rich in umami as a result of the proteins present within its microorganisms. If a chef, therefore, can somehow inspire a guest to try an initial soil-laced forkful, they will most likely be back for more.

Chefs have been experimenting with "faux soil" elements in their dishes for years, employing the powders and granules of dehydrated bread, mushrooms and vegetables to mimic the texture and look of dirt. But in the ultimate quest for authenticity, some innovators are taking Narisawa's lead and researching the genuine article. One example is served at Cellar de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, where chef Joan Roca creates an umami-rich foam comprised of soil distilled with a Rotavapor. It's likely that soil will make an appearance on more restaurant menus in the years to come as chefs embrace the philosophy of hyper-local cooking and seek out new ways to promote a sustainable kitchen.

Only the world's most avant-garde restaurants are currently celebrating soil's edible virtues, but the practice of consuming the earth, or geophagy, is nothing new. References date back as far as Aristotle and Hippocrates, who advised: "If a pregnant woman feels the desire to eat earth or charcoal and then eats them, the child will show signs of these things." In India, where some citizens consume their clay cups after draining them of tea, Mahatma Gandhi promoted geophagy for health reasons. He was onto something. Nutritionally dense soil and clay are packed with organisms that provide our bodies with protection against harmful bacteria. One scientist explained that the earth provides "a mud mask for our gut" by creating a barrier against destructive pathogens.

Geophagy is still a common practice in Central Africa, where the fruits, nuts and vegetables in a consumer's basket compete for space with edible clay discs for sale at open-air markets throughout the region. Today, pregnant women in various areas of the world follow the ancient advice of Hippocrates by consuming clay during their pregnancies for the supplemental nutritional support it provides. Clay consumption in rural parts of the southern United States was once an accepted tradition until the stigma attached to the custom convinced practitioners to fulfill their nutritional requirements elsewhere. Although the numbers cannot be substantiated, it's estimated that a substantial portion of the population in the American south still secretly practices geophagy, honoring the legacy of their ancestors by embracing their culinary wisdom.

For chefs like Yoshihiro Narisawa and Joan Roca, soil is not only a means of honoring our collective culinary heritage, it's the superlative way to promote the earth-to-table movement. No other element embodies a region's terroir more astutely than soil, and although it might be something new on the gastronomic horizon, it has the potential to deliver a profound message. It also fulfills our primordial need to forge a bond with our planet while reconnecting us to a tradition practiced for millennia. Hopefully Narisawa's Copenhagen talk inspired chefs to explore soil's possibilities. He concluded his presentation by explaining that "soil tastes different depending upon the seasons," because, he says "soil is so alive." The proof, in other words, is in the dirt.