South Asian foods hold a molecular secret
Photo by Jpatokal via Wikimedia Commons
You probably think you know why you like Indian food. “It’s delicious, that’s why,” you might say. (And if you don’t like Indian food, well, then you have bad opinions and should feel badly about them.) But according to researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology Jodhpur, the cuisines of South Asia harbor a molecular secret that make them particularly appealing to our taste buds.
The Washington Post reports that, using data from more than 2,000 recipes, the research team found that—unlike in many other kinds of food—Indian eats use ingredients whose component flavors tend not to overlap with one another. “We found that average flavor sharing in Indian cuisine was significantly lesser than expected,” wrote the researchers in their report, titled “Spices form the basis of food pairing in Indian cuisine.”
All foods contain flavor compounds that react with our palates to influence the way we taste; on average, an individual ingredient is likely to contain a little more than 50 of these compounds. Most dishes in Western cuisines are made up of foods that overlap in chemical profile, sharing a good number of flavor compounds between different ingredients—these foods might not seem overtly similar to each other, but under a microscope they have strong commonalities. The Washington Post elaborates:
A nifty chart shared by Scientific American in 2013 shows which foods share the most flavor compounds with others and which food pairings have the most flavor compounds in common. Peanut butter and roasted peanuts have one of the most significant overlaps (no surprise there). But there are connections that are more difficult to predict: strawberries, for instance, have more in common with white wine than they do with apples, oranges or honey.
Photo by Amiyashrivastava via Wikimedia Commons
So while Western foods tend to be very matchy-matchy with their compound pairings, Indian food uses entirely different flavor logic, with each ingredient bringing a greater number of singular elements to a given dish. The IITJ paper explains that while till now, dominant culinary strategy dictated that “ingredients sharing flavor compounds are more likely to taste well together than ingredients that do not,” this study proves the potency of the opposite approach as well. According to WaPo,
The takeaway is that part of what makes Indian food so appealing is the way flavors rub up against each other. The cuisine is complicated, no doubt: the average Indian dish, after all, contains at least 7 ingredients, and the total number of ingredients observed by the researchers amounted to almost 200 out of the roughly 381 observed around the world. But all those ingredients—and the spices especially—are all uniquely important because in any single dish, each one brings a unique flavor.