Bon Appétit


Certain ingredients taste right together: think of bread and butter, chocolate and peanuts. But is it because they share some deep traits, or have we just become accustomed to eating them together? A new scientific analysis of recipes suggests different answers for different cuisines.

Scientists analyzed the so-called food-pairing hypothesis—the idea that foods with similar taste appear more often together. They focused on 381 ingredients used worldwide and identified 1,021 chemical compounds that contribute to their flavors. Then they mapped the overlaps, plotting each ingredient as a circle (larger circles represent more common ingredients) and drawing lines between foods that share at least one compound. Thick lines indicate lots of shared compounds, thinner lines fewer. Among expected overlaps—olives taste like olive oil—odd connections popped up, such as links between cranberries and lard, and rosemary and blackberry brandy.

However tantalizing, though, this “flavor network” doesn’t reveal whether people do in fact employ ingredients with similar compounds in dishes. So Yong-Yeol Ahn, a computer scientist at Indiana University-Bloomington, devised a program to crawl through online databases of recipes and tally which ingredients appear together. Ahn and his colleagues found that the food-pairing hypothesis holds for cuisines in North America and western Europe, where traditions combine ingredients with similar compounds far more often than would be expected by chance. Other cuisines, however, like those in southern Europe and especially East Asia, avoid such pairings, emphasizing contrast.

This finding “may be just a historical accident,” Ahn says, but it might also “contain a deep secret about the cultural differences.” The truth may become clearer with analyses of more cuisines, but he’s hit a roadblock because some cuisines, such as those in Africa, lack online recipe databases.

And, oh yes, despite all the taste research, Ahn insists his own cooking hasn’t improved at all.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Sam Kean is the author of six science books, including The Disappearing Spoon and The Icepick Surgeon.


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