Behold! The Martian Menu, Courtesy of Mars City Design!

Today, there is no shortage of people who want to see humans go to Mars in their lifetime. Moreover, many want to go there themselves, and some even want to stay! It goes without saying that this proposed endeavor presents all kinds of challenges (the word Herculean comes to mind!) This is especially true when it comes to feeding future missions to Mars, not to mention permanent residents.

Regular resupply missions to Mars are simply not feasible, which means astronauts and settlers will have to grow their own food. To inspire ideas for how this could be done, and what the resulting meals would be like, Vera Mulyani and the organization she founded (Mars City Design) created the Martian Feast Gala. This annual event showcases what a Martian Menu could consist of and illustrates how every challenge is an opportunity to get creative!

As we covered in a previous article, architect Vera Mulyani moved to California after completing her studies and was inspired by the emerging NewSpace industry. Ever since she was a child, she dreamed of how humans might one day live on Mars. With luminaries like Elon Musk working to make this a reality, Mulyani decided to apply her talents to the challenge of establishing a human colony on the Red Planet.

This led her to found Mars City Design (MCD) in 2015, an innovation platform that brings architecture and design professionals together with volunteers to create new and inspiring solutions for living on Mars. Every year, this organization hosts the MCD Challenge, where the winning teams have the privilege of seeing their designs built on the MCD property in the Mojave desert.

While the theme differs from year to year, every competition tries to achieve the same balance of factors that will go into living on Mars. In particular, there is always an emphasis on sustainability, where every resource is used wisely to meet the needs of the inhabitants and all waste products are recycled. It was this same vision that inspired Mulyani and MCD to begin hosting the Martian Feast Gala in 2016.

This annual event (along with other fundraisers) is held to raise money to support the research and development efforts of MCD’s habitat design program and features food made from “superfoods” (i.e. vegetables and spices known for their health benefits) using a zero-waste process. But as Mulyani explained to Universe Today, the Gala is also about showcasing the connection between space exploration and life on Earth:

“The belief of how food can make the long-duration mission, away from home, feel home. The understanding that if we change the way we eat, we can improve our environment, our health, and our behavior as a result of the improvement made from the health of our gut flora and our environment.”

The ingredients are selected based on what the ideal menu would be for crews in a space habitat, taking into account both health and enjoyment. These are then adapted to create recipes that rely on crops that can be grown in a Martian habitat and provide the best nutrients to ensure the crew’s health.

As Mulyani explained, these include veggies and spices that can have “strong natural colors or resveratrol” (a natural antimicrobial and antioxidant), since these are known to boost the immune system and prevent inflammatory diseases. Examples include Himalayan red or Hawaiin black-lava salt, turmeric, cloves, purple cabbage, spirulina (an edible form of cyanobacteria), cacao, activated charcoal… the list goes on!

Another important ingredient is the birch xylitol, a soluble crystal compound that is often used as a sugar substitute – which is necessary since NO items on the Mars Menu are made using sugar. The meals are then prepared by guest chefs who are known for their creativity and ability to adapt. Said Mulyani:

“We invite different chef teams at different locations, adapting to local farming supplies and seasonal crops as well, practicing to make a variety of menus with ingredients that can help astronauts to stay healthy and be reminded of home. We’d also like to include the awareness of our eight senses.

The eight senses Mulyani refers to include the five we all know: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. Beyond these, the concept of 8 senses (8ense) emphasizes the other aspects of perception that contribute to peoples’ sense of well-being. The concept was developed after the winning submission of the 2016 MCD Design Challenge, the Mood Adjuster (MA) by Adrian Pelkus (see video above).

Similar to the purpose of MA, 8ense philosophy is about the other three senses: memory, environment, and a general feeling of well-being. “[These] lead our health and longevity, affecting our microgut flora and the way we are attracted to our food, is not just through smell or taste or visual presentation, but also memory, environment/ambient, and how confident or [good] we are in our skin (feeling safe when eating),” said Mulyani.

Like their Design Challenge, every year’s Mars Feast Galal has a different theme. Last year’s event, Martian Feast 1010 (the 8th annual gala) featured an all-Vegan menu, with offerings like beet-rip champagne, nut and soy cheeses, hummus colored like the Martian flag (red, green, and blue), wakame (edible seaweed), roasted root vegetables, smoked carrot “salmon,” polenta, and simulated meats made from vegetable proteins.

Last year’s invited guest chef was Renee Lo Iacono, a California native who has distinguished herself as a superyacht and sailboat chef. With a focus on both good eats and health and wellness, Iacono’s culinary specialty is on plant-based, gluten-free foods that optimize health, minimize inflammation, and lead to a reduced risk of disease (particularly cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes).
The 2019 Mars Feast Gala invite. Credit: Mars City Designs

On top of all that, Iacono has long been fascinated with the sea and the stars, which she sees as a source of inspiration and hope to the human imagination. All of this makes a chef like Iacono well-suited to designing menus that would maximize health and enjoyment for future Martians and space explorers, as well as leveraging foods that can be sustainably produced.

The ingredients for creating the Martian Menu are provided by Galactic Farms and Geonauts. Whereas Galactic Farms is a Montana-based urban farming operation that specializes in growing food in the most unexpected places, Geonauts is a Colorado-based company that specializes in the development of ecological techniques to ensure resilience and capacity in local, remote, and extreme environments.

As with previous events, the Martian Feast 1010 featured guest speakers, musicians, culinary artists, members of the NewSpace industry, and celebrities. Among them was Hallie Lambert, a writer on the TV series The Expanse and The Expanse Origins comic miniseries. The teams that produced the winning entries for the year’s design competition is also featured and awarded their trophies.

Unfortunately, this year’s feast had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, with so many enthusiastic supporters eager to see what’s on the menu for the next feast, Mulyani and MCD are confident the annual event will continue soon. Mulyani has also addressed how the current pandemic has led people to rethink ideas like personal space, isolation, and health and safety.

This kind of thinking will come in mighty handy for future colonists and explorers on Mars. As Mulyani put it:

“COVID has made more people conscious of how important it is to be prepared, stock up [on] the right ingredients, grow some crops, maintain health, hygiene and food supplies in the case of isolation, similar to our astronauts on the space station, or when the first crews go and live on Mars.”

All proceeds from the Mars Feast Gala (and other fundraising events) are going towards the creation of a sustainable, multifunctional urban facility in the Mojave Desert (see video above). This Mars City® will utilize the winning concepts from the MCD Design Challenges and will be assembled using 3-D printers and sustainable construction techniques.

Once finished, Mars City will serve as a research and education center, hosting science retreats, an aerospace kindergarten, and Martian/urban farming experiments. Basically, the city will serve as a blueprint for what MCD hopes to one-day build on the surface on Mars. And you can bet that the people who will live and work there will have access to some pretty inspired menu items. Yum!

Further Reading: Mars City Design