London Design Festival at Borough Market

Categories: News and previews

For nine days each year, the capital plays host to a roster of designers and artists. This year, as part of the festival and in conjunction with Royal College of Art and Imperial College, a selection of exhibits formed a treasure trail of ‘food design thinking’ at the Market, promoting good eating habits and creative cooking, and getting us thinking about food supply and consumption. Clare Finney paid a visit

Words: Clare Finney

“What do you think good nutrition looks like?” asks Stephen. I’m taken aback—not so much by the question (as a regular contributor to Borough Market’s website, I flatter myself I can answer it) as by the medium in which I’m expected to reply. “We want people to model what they think good nutrition looks like in plasticine, so we can scan it and print it out in 3D.” He shows me some examples. A plasticine jack, each blob a different color, represents how “a balanced diet has a variety of angles”; a plasticine bar of chocolate has been split in half, to indicate moderate sugar consumption. Some joker has modelled an (admittedly pretty healthy looking) poo.

For those wondering where I am, and why I’m looking at plasticine faeces, I really am in Borough Market. The Action for Eating Well stall is one of several which comprise the Food Design Thinking event, part of this year’s London Design Festival. Researchers from the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London partnered with the Market to stage a series of interactive design interventions, to be found throughout the Market. There are sonic and haptic triggers to control satisfaction in the eating experience; some examples of seagrass-based packaging; a toolkit allowing humans to collect bacteria from natural food or waste, and much more. 

The plasticine models will go back to Imperial, which is collaborating with a nutrition research company to see what people think good nutrition is. I move on, promising to return once I’ve worked out what my answer would look like. Next stop is the Dogan tofu press, brainchild and brainwave of RCA student Ting-Yu Liu. He grew up on tofu as a child in Taiwan, and was dismayed to find us Westerners so disdainful of it. Could he persuade us? “Tofu can be really tasty, if it’s cooked properly. The problem is, most people here don’t know how to do it—and that’s where my research started.”

Seagrass packaging

Sustainable plant protein
The first step toward making good tofu is pressing it. “This gets the water out, so you get a more concentrated flavour and a better texture when you cook it.” He shows me a photo of tofu products so tantilising, they look—well, they look like meat. Yet tofu is one of the most sustainable forms of plant protein out there, and if Ting-Yu could persuade the Western world of tofu’s tastiness, he could be on to a very good thing.   

His tofu press purports to do just that. It’s easy: just put the tofu in the inner container, close the lid and attach the strap tightly so it’s applying pressure. The excess water will collect in the outer container. It’s quick, too, taking just 15 minutes compared with the several hours it can take in a traditional weighted Asian press, and the pressure is evenly distributed. “The longer you leave it, the drier it gets,” Ting-Yu says, before showing me a series of tofu recipes complete with QR codes. I scan one for tofu fries, which he promises are delicious, and resolve that once Ting-Yu’s Dogan press hits the market, I’ll make them at home.

Design and food are intricately connected: both in terms of production (one exhibit, a production line of mango drink recreated in miniature, was mesmerising) and when it comes to consumption. “You eat with your eyes,” as my grandma tells me—it was inspiring, therefore, to see design students engaging with various projects to encourage children to interact more with their food.

The crazy omelette
One of the best was the interactive toolkit for kids, designed by Florencia Sepúlveda Camposano. By designing a range of cooking utensils especially for kids—a sealed ‘shaker’ for mixing, a cookie cutter style implement for cutting vegetables and so on—she hopes to break down the sense of detachment engendered by a world in which food is excessively pre-prepared and packaged. A recipe for an omelette is written out like a story, Nico and the Crazy Omelette, which takes you through the recipe steps, using the safe tools she’s designed. Quite literally—and in the best possible way—she smiles, it encourages kids to touch, smell and yes, play with their food.

Next to her was the COZY Cutlery stand, exhibiting cutlery for kids which you can warm up or cool down according to their needs. The theory is (and it’s a theory founder Jooneyeon Cho would like to see proven) that warm cutlery slows down eating. If it does, his silicone-handled knives and forks could help tackle childhood obesity. “It started off with me observing how people in other cultures often ate more with their hands. The Koreans even have a word for it: “hand taste,” explains Jooneyeon. “I thought there must be some connection between cutlery and our attitudes towards food.”

I’ll watch that space with interest. In the meantime, I’ve a promise to keep at the Action for Eating Well stall. Now, how would I go about building a miniature monolith of Borough Market out of plasticine?