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Co.Design

I Tasted BBQ Sauce Made By IBM's Watson, And Loved It

If the future of food is designed by robots, that's fine by me.

IBM sent me a bottle of BBQ sauce designed by Watson, so I ate it. My job is weird sometimes.

Yes, it’s THE Watson. The same computer that decimated Ken Jennings in Jeopardy has taken on an even greater challenge—what IBM calls cognitive computing, or put more simply, creativity. And what better arena to test creativity than the kitchen? After all, computers are good at math or whatever, but they can’t invent the next cronut or conceptualize the snack chip that will become a taco shell. They can’t stick a toilet plunger in a melted pile of brown birthday fondant like those bakers on reality TV—right?

Not so long ago, IBM shared Watson’s cooking methodology and first public recipe with Co.Design. Shortly thereafter, they opened a food truck at SXSW. And they also sent a lucky few journalists a beautiful bottle of Bengali Butternut BBQ Sauce, a golden, algorithmic elixir born from the silicon mind of Watson himself.

The sauce was prepared by chefs at ICE (Institute of Culinary Education) based on ingredient combinations generated by Watson.

When I unwrapped the brightly colored box and found the bottle inside, I immediately flipped to the back label. Most BBQ sauces start with ingredients like vinegar, tomatoes, or even water, but IBM’s stands out from the get go. Ingredient one: White wine. Ingredient two: Butternut squash.

The list contains more Eastern influences, such as rice vinegar, dates, cilantro, tamarind (a sour fruit you may know best from Pad Thai), cardamom (a floral seed integral to South Asian cuisine) and turmeric (the yellow powder that stained the skull-laden sets of True Detective) alongside American BBQ sauce mainstays molasses, garlic, and mustard.

I pour a bit of the bottle onto a plate of roasted tofu and broccoli—even a pork lover has gotta watch his cholesterol—and tentatively took a bite. Watson’s golden sauce may have the pulpy consistency of baby food, but it packs a surprising amount of unique flavor.

Immediately, you can taste the sweet warmth of the wine and the squash. The tamarind blends seamlessly, backed by a duo of vinegars, to tickle your tongue with just the right amount of tartness. The other flavors combine to leave an indefinable, warm aftertaste that, as you have a few more bites, actually heats your mouth—thanks to Thai chiles.

I test it again and again. Finally I just slather my plate in the stuff. It’s delicious—the best way I can describe it is as a Thai mustard sauce, or maybe the middle point between a BBQ sauce and a curry. Does that sound gross? I assure you that it isn’t.

A closer inspection of the nutritional content reveals another unadvertised benefit of Watson’s sauce. Not only is it deliciously sweet and tangy, but it’s low in sugar, with only 2g per serving versus the 16g you’ll find in Sweet Baby Ray’s signature sauce, or the 5g you’ll find in their honey mustard dipping sauce (this is probably a fairer comparison, but let it be said that Sweet Baby Ray has triple the calories because it’s loaded with fat). The opportunity to generate healthier tasty foods by maximizing the use of complementary flavor-packed ingredients is just one of the promises of IBM’s technology, and at least in this case, they’ve proven the concept. (No doubt, IBM’s small, promotional batch production allowed them to pack some relatively pricey ingredients into their bottle.)

But as I mop my plate of the last drips of Bengali Butternut BBQ Sauce, contemplating the difference between a future in which computers addict us to the next Lean Cuisine and one where they attempt to eradicate us with Terminators, Napoleon’s old adage comes to mind: An army marches on its stomach. He—or that—who controls our stomachs controls it all.

[Image: BBQ Sauce via Flickr user IBM Watson Cognitive Cooking]