For many people, Indian food is love at first bite. The wonderful combination of vibrant colors, invigorating aromas and bold yet perfectly balanced spices are enough to drive anyone into sensory overload. But what is it about Indian food that makes it so irresistibly divine? It turns out that there’s a lot more to it than simply dreaming up cocktails of spices and ingredients that seem to go well.
After studying more than 2,500 recipes, scientists discovered that, contrary to what we might expect, the secret to Indian food’s exquisite taste is actually pairing ingredients that do not share many flavors. Furthermore, certain spices were found to actually accentuate this so-called negative food pairing phenomenon, such as cayenne pepper.
But before we delve into the details of the study, let’s explore the wonderful world of ingredients. Foods can be broken down into the flavors they contain, which are the result of the different chemical constituents that produce a certain characteristic taste when combined.
In the Western world, the prevailing hypothesis—heralded by wacky and wonderful chef Heston Blumenthal—is that foods that share many flavors should go well together. That’s how he figured out that the bizarre mix of caviar and white chocolate actually works. Although white chocolate is tricky to pair, it shares flavors with things like wasabi, pink peppercorn and brie. The flavors in dark chocolate also give rise to some unusual pairings, such as fried onions and parmesan.
A few years back, scientists tested this food pairing hypothesis by creating a flavor map in which foods with components in common are networked. From the wonderful interaction version on Scientific American, you can see that roasted beef shares the most flavor compounds with other foods, whereas things like rhubarb, fenugreek and violet share the least. From this, researchers concluded that although Western cuisines tend to use ingredient pairs that share lots of flavor compounds, East Asian cuisines actually tend to avoid doing this.
To find out whether there may be any pairing trends in Indian cuisine, researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology Jodhpur started off by downloading 2,543 recipes from an online database. These included recipes from various sub-cuisines, such as Punjabi and Bengali, spanning different climates and cultures. They then listed all of the different ingredients found across the recipes, 194 in total, and grouped them into categories like spice, vegetable and herb. Finally, they created a flavor network that demonstrated how often ingredients shared flavor compounds.
Interestingly, in contrast to Western cuisine, Indian cuisine demonstrates strong negative food pairing with little flavor sharing. In other words, the more flavors particular ingredients have in common, the less likely they are to be found together in a recipe. Furthermore, some foods were found to strengthen the negative food pairing effect, such as cayenne pepper, garam masala and cinnamon. This means that a dish containing these ingredients is highly unlikely to also contain other foods with overlapping flavors.
So why has this trend emerged? According to the authors, it could have something to do with the fact that historically, spices were primarily used to prevent spoilage by bacteria and also for their supposed health benefits. These medicinal beliefs therefore likely left their signature on traditional Indian recipes, the authors conclude.