EAST vs. WEST: Flavour profiles and ingredient combinations
- 56, 498 recipes
- Some really smart people
- Two amazing culinary cultural styles of cooking
- One very interesting and confusing report
To live, we must eat. Early on, our species developed complex survival mechanisms to ensure we ate things that would benefit us, that would help us avoid poisonous or dangerous ingredients. Taste was one of these essential mechanisms… As food became more readily available, more diverse, so too did our eating habits. We evolved into foodies.
Geographical regions played an important part of what we ate and how it was prepared, as different ingredients were available in different locations. Today, these differences can still be seen in regional cuisine. Also, as the culinary world continues to experiment by combining strange and seemingly unbalanced ingredients (foie gras and pop rocks?) a question is raised… are there any general patterns that determine ingredient combinations?
A recent study by some really smart people looked at the flavour profiles in 56, 498 recipes, to determine whether patterns exist within regional cuisines. They focused on flavor compounds (the chemical profiles found in food) that determine palatability through odors and tastes, freshness or pungency. Many chefs and food scientists now believe that ingredients sharing flavor compounds are more likely to taste well together than ingredients that do not (food pairing). For example, some contemporary restaurants combine white chocolate and caviar, as they share trimethylamine and other flavour compounds, or chocolate and blue cheese, that share at least 73 flavour compounds.
Through this study, they found that Western cuisines show a tendency to use ingredient pairs that share many flavor compounds, supporting the so-called food pairing hypothesis. By contrast, East Asian cuisines tend to avoid compound sharing ingredients. This idea of flavour compounds doesn’t necessarily relate to ingredients “going together”, as mushrooms share almost no flavour compounds with other foods, yet taste amazing with a whole ton of different things. Here are some sciency looking graphs that kind-of sort of explain things.
So… what does this mean?
Perhaps not surprisingly, in North American recipes, the more compounds are shared by two ingredients, the more likely they appear in recipes. On the other hand, in East Asian cuisine the more flavour compounds two ingredients share, the less likely they are used together. This suggests that the food pairing effect is due to a few outliers that are frequently used in a particular cuisine, e.g. milk, butter, cocoa, vanilla, cream, and egg in the North America, and beef, ginger, pork, cayenne, chicken, and onion in East Asia.
So what do we get?
The rather different ingredient classes illustrates the differences between the two cuisines: North American food heavily relies on dairy products, eggs and wheat; by contrast, East Asian cuisine is dominated by plant derivatives like soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice and ginger.
What we get is choice. Feeling like something rich and developed? Have a nice Western cream sauce. Want something bold and exciting? Go Szechuan. It’s all food… it’s all good.