“Look around you and tell me what is not chemistry?” was written on the door of one of my professors in the University in my undergraduate days. This statement was more effective in making me understand chemistry than many of the classes I attend. It made me look for chemistry in everything around me and in every activity I do, so far my favourite chemistry activity is cooking. I found very interesting similarities between the process of making chemical products in the laboratory and that of cooking in the kitchen, especially cooking African soups.
So how is the making of chemical products similar to that of food? First, let’s look at the similarities in the use of materials. To make an African soup like Egusi or Ogbono, you must have certain equipment or tools, such as blender, mortar, utensils and heat. Just like you, chemists also make use of such equipment. They also use equipment similar to kitchen equipment such as oven and dryers, and similar tools and utensils such as mortars, containers called beakers, spoons called spatulas, etc. Most utensils used in the labs may look different from those used in the kitchen but they have similar functions. For instance, a spatula has a similar function with a spoon and a beaker with a cup and bowl.
Importantly, cooking food dishes requires you have a recipe which is a list of ingredients and instructions on how to make a dish. To cook Egusi soup to a desired taste, aroma, texture and appearance, you must know the quality and measure of oil, salt, spice, seasoning, water, paper, melon seed and other ingredients to be used. The recipe instructs you on how to prepare your ingredients before adding, the measures of salt and seasonings, water, oil, etc., and the time and order to add each ingredient.
To be able to reproduced a taste, aroma, texture and appearance in food, you usually stick to a certain recipe as factors such as a variation in the cooking time for ingredients, overheating of oil when frying, and over-cooking of meat using pressure pot can all affect the taste, aroma, texture and appearance of a dish. Even the cooking time for food can be reduced by adding certain ingredients called catalyst in chemistry. For instance, Potash is commonly used to shorten the time required for cooking beans.
Similarly, chemists who make chemical products have instructions on how to use the reagents. These instructions are called Procedures and are also based on processes in which heat, time, pressure, catalysts are applied to get the desired chemical product. The procedures indicate the chemicals that are needed, instruction on how to prepare the reagents, and amount of the reagents that will be used in the process. Like what you look out for in your egusi soup, chemists also look out for qualities such as smell/aroma, taste, texture and appearance in their products.
The are several similarities between the making of chemical products and cooking that can be used to increase student’s interest in chemistry and help them connect to the field. let’s look at the ergonomics of a laboratory (or lab) and a Kitchen. The work environment of a chemist is similar to that of a cook. Both lab and kitchen have waist-high worktables, washing basins and sinks, water and heat sources, and fume/smoke vents in some places, etc. They are both similarly equipped cabinets equipped with lockers and shelves. Another similarity is the dress codes of cooks and chemists. Both cooks and chemists dress in white coats while working.
Although food is technically a chemical product, to a layman it is not. So cooking is the most common and relatable activity that can be used to simplify and explain the concept and processes involved in making a chemical product in the lab to students and laymen, especially here in Africa. This is in the context that most schools in Africa lack adequately equipped laboratories and there are few chemical companies in the continent which Africans can relate to. Most Africans students, for this reason, don’t have the privilege of being taught the practicality of chemistry neither do they have the opportunity of experiencing the production of chemical products whether in the laboratory or industry.
For instance, In Nigeria, universities have started running Skill Acquisition Centre to teaches their students how to make chemical products such as liquid soaps, paints, fragrances, etc. as self-employment skills, however, these students are not taught the chemistry of these products or process of producing the products. These skills learned are not linked to chemistry or the theories the students have already learnt in chemistry classes. In most university if not all, such students are taught by skill facilitators who are not chemists and who most likely don’t understand the chemistry involved in what they teach. At the end of the day, these students learn to make chemicals without learning the chemistry of the products. They are unable to connect the chemicals to chemistry and continue to see chemistry as a very complicated field not easily practicable in their immediate community or as an abstract field with no direct everyday application.