For more than a year, a package of Cambodian tapioca sticks sat in my pantry unopened. Then one evening, I Googled my noodles and ate them.
Google, the almighty Web search engine, is my encyclopedia, dictionary, shopping mart, even private investigator. So it seemed natural to type in "Cambodian tapioca noodles" and see what recipes Google could rustle up. And rustle it did.
The concept behind Google cooking is basic: Simply plug in your ingredients and the word "recipes," press Google search, then wait for the results to pop up. The engine will scour reams of Web sites — from the expected (Food Network's http://foodtv.com/) to the obscure (http://acupuncture.com/) — for recipes that incorporate your desired foodstuffs. With its infinite repository, Google can find recipes for unconventional food pairings or exotic products that might stump most cookbooks. Indeed, it was a piece of salmon and a bunch of Swiss chard that inspired Judy Hourihan to enlist Google's assistance three years ago.
"Every night I would rummage around my kitchen for something to eat and then go in the back room to look through cookbooks," said Hourihan, the former Massachusetts software engineer who is considered the pioneer of Google cooking. "Then I thought, 'Why am I looking through cookbooks when I can just sit at my computer and Google it?' "
The term "Google cooking" was coined in 2002, after Hourihan gained media attention with her salmon and Swiss chard success. Since then, she has continued to consult Google at mealtimes. Her latest venture was for mahi mahi, sun-dried tomatoes and brown rice; Google led her to a recipe posted by blogster Cyndi Norman.
"It's good when you don't have a clear idea of what to make with an odd combination of ingredients," said Hourihan, 60, who Google cooks at least once a week. "You take your chances, but it really pays off. I have never put in a combination that I did not find a recipe for."
And therein lies the appeal of Google cooking: It helps you build a meal from bottom up (vs. recipe down), while also purging your kitchen of languishing edibles, aging produce and meats, or overstocked perishables (i.e., that crate of pineapples bought impulsively during a Hawaiian vacation).
"It's good for helping those lacking creativity or for spur-of-the-moment cooking," said Charlie Ayers, former Google company chef. "It can also clear out the dead inventory or clean out the refrigerator."
There is no official tally of Google cooks, but there were more than 33 million visits to culinary-related Web sites in September, according to comScore Media Metrix, a Reston research firm that tracks Web usage. Of those, 3 million users clicked onto http://allrecipes.com/, which lists more than 30,000 recipes and offers an ingredients-to-recipes search function. A few other sites, such as http://cookinglight.com/, have a similar device.
I, however, shunned the refining tools -- who knows what great dish might be weeded out? -- preferring to plumb Google's bottomless resources. But first, a warning: The uninitiated should not start Google cooking if ravenous. Google is a black hole that can suck you in, then spit you out hours later, still hungry and with no dinner plan.
My inaugural search began with a softball grocery list: chickpeas, raisins and yams. I found a variety of interesting tagines and African stews, yet the recipe that intrigued most was called "Soft Food For Eucleactus." It sounded like a dish made for a Roman emperor with glass teeth. But then I read on: "This nutritious mixture of food is relished by all Eclectus ... however, other parrots have tried and enjoyed this recipe." The expression "eats like a bird" just went literal.
After nearly falling for parrot food, I decided to retaliate by challenging Google to a virtual recipe-off. I plugged in every odd combination short of crickets to see if the engine could produce the goods. I tapped in "beer Brussels sprouts recipes"; it punched back " rosenkohl in bier gedunstet ." I tried "pears red hots recipes." Google stomped out "Blushing Pear with Cinnamon Candies."
"Google brings up viable recipes that coincide with the ingredients in your refrigerator," said Ayers. "But some of the recipes are a little out there and bizarre."
How strange? Just consider my noodles. After ignoring the spaghetti-like threads for so long, I finally dragged the package out of the cabinet and set them next to the computer, as my muse. My first hit was a Cambodian dish called mee sach moan nung sach ko puvet . It used the noodles but also required a whole chicken, Asian beef meatballs and two pounds of chicken and pork neck bones -- none of which I had in my fridge. However, the words "tapioca" and "Cambodian" did unearth sticky rice recipes. Hmm ....
Needing reinforcements, I raided my friend Eric's kitchen, which was a trove of starving grad-student snacks, supermarket sale items and leftovers from a short-lived South Beach diet. Our chosen three -- the Powerball number for Google cooking — were tofu, oranges and cauliflower. And with a wave of the magic mouse, Google came up with "Peas, Cauliflower and Tofu with Spicy Orange" from http://wholesomebabyfood.com/. For a side dish, I plugged in rice and coconut milk, figuring I could replace the rice with my noodles, which were pretty glutinous.
Printout in hand, we cooked, ate and delighted in a concoction we never would have conjured without Google. Then, dessert caught my eye — a blackening banana sitting on the countertop, one day away from the compost heap. So I dashed to the computer to cook it.