Food delivery occurs every two months on sMars, but some of our food has been here for a mission or two already. In theory, it takes around 6 months for a supply vessel to leave Earth and arrive on sMars carrying our resupply. This means there’s no fresh meat or produce for the HI-SEAS crew members because fresh food wouldn’t survive the trip. It also means the fresh catch of the day at Café Habitat is usually dehydrated salmon or canned tuna. There’s marlin jerky if you’re brave.
Despite the apparent limitations of eating only shelf-stable food, we haven’t found many meals that couldn’t be approximated with a little ingenuity and the ingredients we have on hand. For the first month and a half of our mission, we never repeated a dinner recipe – a feat I have never performed on Earth. We’ve made fresh pasta, fresh bread, casseroles, stir fries, curries, pupusas, cakes, brownies, creme brulee, biscuits, cookies and more.
But this post isn’t about that.
While many wonderful meals can be created using dehydrated ingredients, there are some preserved food mysteries that may not be worth exploring. Unfortunately, you don’t always know what these are until you give it a shot. Sometimes past crews will give you a hint, like leaving a bag of white powder labeled “Nasty a** coconut milk powder s***,” managing to fit two expletives onto one ziploc bag.
At the start of the mission, we took inventory of all our foodstuffs and ended up with a box full of not-meat. I don’t mean the sad dehydrated chunks of what was once meat that we actually enjoy, I mean textured vegetable protein chunks, or TVP. Most of my crew immediately steered around this, but I spent about a decade as a vegetarian and haven’t found a fake meat product that I won’t try (although I’ve found many that I won’t try a second time). I pulled out an innocent looking bottle of dried veggies titled “Chickenish Soup Mix” and set to work. The directions on the bottle say to simply add the mix to boiling water and cook until re-hydrated. I was immediately suspicious when I dumped mix into the pot and saw no evidence of flavoring or spices. I was also concerned because the mix includes not-meat, corn, peppers and carrots. Any good martian knows that you cook the carrots first because they take forever to re-hydrate, while the corn and the not-meat will cook quickly. But I did as instructed and fired up the induction hot plate with everything mixed into the water. Within a few minutes, there was still no evidence of spices in the water and no discernible smell coming from the pot. The not-meat had already started to soften and the carrots were rock hard. Uh-oh.
One important trait in an astronaut is adaptability because you never know what challenges you might have to overcome. You might have to repair your solar panels after a surprise dust storm or you might have to repair your soup mix before you can eat lunch. It can be stressful, you know? Leaning on past experiences can help you work through a problem more efficiently, and in this case I’ve cooked many pots of ramen with a little extra pizzazz.
First order of business was to get flavor into the pot. Bullion is salty, but can provide a savory base for a soup, similar to the little packet that comes in instant ramen. Garlic and onion make an appearance in almost everything I cook, and on sMars we are fancy enough to have both the dried chunk and powdered variety. Add some smoked paprika, chile powder, cumin, tarragon and dried chile flakes and baby, you got a stew goin’.
My overall impression of the TVP “chicken” is mediocre; it’s not great but I have eaten worse. I might throw it in another pot of soup, but it’s never going to make a star entrée. I started eating meat again before the mission to make cooking in bulk for the crew easier and have been reminded that meat can be delicious. I know that it’s possible to create enticing vegetarian meals, but Chickenish soup isn’t going to be the way to do it.
4/10 if you change everything about it
0/10 if you try to eat it as-is