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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]

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  • Oh god, has it still not entered the mind of some people, that fat doesn’t make you fat? No matter how many calories. It never ever makes you fat. It’s the carbs that cause an inflammation of the wrongest bacteria in the entire digestive system (not just the mouth), and those result in a digestion process that makes people fat. If you leave away that crap (which isn’t human food anyway, we’re not grass eaters), and eat meat and some vegetables/fruit like you’re supposed to, you’ll just feel full much earlier (about halfway in, compared to when you add carbs), and you’ll digest much slower, so that nothing needs to go into your fat cells. Even if you’re basically eating pure fat! There have been numerous well-done stuies, and this in one of the best: Just look at Table 1! If that isn’t freaking clear, then I don’t know what is!

  • The link you posted isn't a study - it's a hypothesis. You are, however, on to something with your "you'll just feel full much earlier" statement. Eating carbs does not make you obese - eating more calories than your body burns causes you to gain weight which can lead to obesity. If you feel full earlier you are likely to consume less food which in turn may lead to eating the correct amount of calories for your body.

  • Jake Brocklehurst

    Interesting research. I previously head-up the UK's leading BBQ sauce range which generated over £40M at retail each year.

    Unsurprisingly, the reason we had such a successful business was because we had a diversified range of products, aimed towards various age groups (ex. heat levels and packaging formats).

    I love the concept but having a new individual SKU which is targeted towards a mass market would cost £10's of million in marketing to drive trial. Fortunately, i'm sure IBM will have this available.

  • Gregory Cannon

    You didn't mention Secrets of the Wholly Grill by Lawrence Townsend. VERY relevant.

  • Eric Webber

    I have no problem with "computer generated food," but I do take issue with anyone, human or machine, referring to a sauce made primarily of white wine and butternut squash as "BBQ" Sauce. No true lover or practitioner of the barbecuing arts - and believe me, it is an art - would have that anywhere near a piece of smoked meat. This is also the first time (and hopefully the last) that anyone should use the words "roasted tofu and broccoli" anywhere near the word BBQ.

  • Thank you. I was going to chime in something along the same lines as this. You bring some butternut bbq sauce to my neck of the woods and you might be asked politely, yet firmly, to leave.

  • public

    My bro and I made some yesterday. It's interesting...but Its going to be a hard thing to risk a rack of ribs to it.

    Seems more like a simmering sauce.