The Sciences

What the First Martian Settlers Will Eat (Maybe)

Field NotesBy Kate GreeneMay 10, 2013 10:33 PM


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This is the fifth in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.

Bowl of Tibetan tsampa porridge made by the HI-SEAS crew. Photo by Sian Proctor. There’s no fresh fruit on Mars. We don’t have fresh vegetables, either, and our food is nowhere near “local.” Most of our meals are made of freeze-dried and dehydrated ingredients that we either rehydrate or just eat crunchy. There are a couple of reasons that dehydrated and freeze-dried foods reign on the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. First, weight. If you take out water, food stuff is nearly as light as air. And payload weight is a crucial factor when you consider it costs about $10,000 to blast a pound of anything into space. Second, preservation. A trip to the Red Planet could take anywhere from about 150 to 300 days, depending on the planetary alignment and speed of the ship. The green beans will need to last.

Pelmeni (Russian dumplings) and a modified Russian cabbage soup. Photo by Sian Proctor. But despite our lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, I’m pleased to report the HI-SEAS crew has been eating quite well. Seriously. We’ve had Russian cabbage pie, Puerto Rican arroz con pollo, Morroccan beef tagine, homemade vanilla ice cream, a Tibetan porridge made of milled, roasted barley, and cheese and broccoli omelets, just to name a few tasty dishes. As I’ve mentioned previously, half of our time on this simulated Mars mission is spent preparing astronaut-like meals where we just add water and heat. The other half is spent coming up with creative meals like the ones mentioned above. These creative meals are pulled together from an extensive pantry that includes items like quinoa, basmati rice, all kinds of dehydrated meats and vegetables, grains, flours, spices, powdered eggs, powdered milk, and quite a bit more. Part of our job as participants in this food study is to figure out which ingredients and meals might work on Mars — to essentially build the first draft of NASA’s Martian cookbook. And a lot of our recipes have been brought from our homes. But during the mission, we’ll also be cooking about 20 recipes that come from a recipe contest held earlier this year.

The ingredients used for tsampa porridge: milk, butter, and tsampa. Photo by Sian Proctor. Organized by Sian Proctor, our education and outreach coordinator, the HI-SEAS recipe contest is giving us opportunities to try meals many of us would have never made on our own. The first dish we sampled was Tibetan tsampa porridge. Tsampa is a flour made from roasted barley grain. When you add water or tea and butter to it, it turns into a dough or porridge. I first learned about tsampa from my officemate in San Francisco, the author and Tibetan activist Canyon Sam. Canyon had traveled throughout Tibet and eaten tsampa there. She told me it has been a staple of nomads who live and move across the region’s harsh land because it’s so lightweight and nourishing. Sounded like perfect space food to me.

Kate eating tsampa porridge. Photo by Sian Proctor. Through a series of connections, Canyon put me in contact with Vancouver, BC-based cousins Tsezom Yuthok and Namlha Yuthok, who own Great Himalayan Foods. I invited them to enter the contest and was happy to see that their recipe for tsampa porridge was a finalist. Personally, I found the porridge to be a delightful upgrade from my usual oatmeal. (Here’s the recipe and video of Sian and our crew commander, Angelo Vermeulen, cooking with tsampa.) Our most recent recipe contest meal was for a Moroccan beef tagine, from Paul Obarowski. This, too, was a delicious meal that I believe could stave off the dreaded menu fatigue on a long mission. The tagine’s flavors were both sweet and savory, and the cashews gave the dish a nice texture. Sian teamed up with crew scientist Yajaira Sierra-Sastre to make the meal. Sian will continue to update the HI-SEAS website with recipes, pictures, and videos throughout the mission. You can get updates on our meals and other simulated-Mars goings on here.

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