Why Indian Cuisine Breaks All The Flavor Science Rules

Everything we Westerners thought we knew about flavor pairing was recently turned on its ear by a study of the delicious and contradictory jumble of sensation known as Indian cuisine.

But let’s step back a minute and look at how we decide what tastes good. Why do we choose certain flavor combos and refuse to touch others with a ten-foot pole? Why not liver-flavored jellybeans, for example, or fish ice cream? Evolutionarily, regional cuisines are the result of a complex mix of influences – climate, geography, history, and culture – but at rock-bottom, taste is all about chemistry.

Many factors affect how good a given food tastes, among them color, texture, temperature, and even sound. (Think of the off-putting non-crunch of a soggy potato chip.) First and foremost among these, however, food scientists agree, is flavor, the taste and odor sensations generated by an individual food ingredient’s unique chemical signature.

On average, most food ingredients contain about 50 different kinds of flavor molecules. Real powerhouses have more: a ripe tomato contains about 400 different flavor and aroma components, and a glass of red wine can contain over a thousand.  In some cases, just a small handful of these predominate.

Cloves, for example, owe their distinctive spicy flavor and smell primarily to a chemical called eugenol – whose anaesthetic properties explain why clove oil is a traditional remedy for toothache – though they also contain a host of lesser components, among them 2-heptanone and methyl salicylate, more commonly known as oil of wintergreen. The zing in ginger comes mostly from zingiberene, which accounts for about 30 percent of ginger root’s essential oil, along with dozens of other compounds, among them (6)-gingerol, a molecule similar to capsaicin, the tongue-searing chemical that puts the heat in hot peppers.

In North American and Western European cuisines, foods that share flavor molecules are thought to go well together. In fact, the more chemical overlap between ingredients – that is, the more flavor molecules they have in common – the more likely that these foods will be perceived as a match made in heaven. Witness pizza’s popular mix of mozzarella cheese, tomato sauce, and parmesan, all of which share a tasty chemical component called 4-methylpentanoic acid.

Sometimes known as food pairing theory, this principle – originated by flavor chemist François Benzi and chef Heston Blumenthal – is now often used by science-minded cooks to come up with new and unusual recipes. There’s even a website for help with creating your own combos.

Molecular matching can lead to unlikely, but delicious, foodmates. Chocolate and blue cheese, which share at least 73 flavor compounds, is one such unexpected flavor-paired duo; others include strawberries and coriander, caviar and white chocolate, bananas and parsley, sage and roasted peanuts, salmon and licorice, and whiskey and beets. Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg’s The Flavor Bible is a creative account of cooking with food pairings: readers invent their own recipes based on flavor matches. Adventurous cooks can choose, for example, from among 70 flavor matches for chick peas and over 100 for oranges.

recent paper by Anupam Jain and colleagues at the Indian Institute of Technology in Jodhpur, however, indicates that Indian cuisine throws a monkey wrench in the flavor-pairing works. Jain’s group analyzed over 2,500 recipes from eight Indian sub-cuisines (among them Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, and South Indian), downloaded from the popular Indian cooking site tarladalal.com.  After a lot of data crunching, they found that – unlike North American cuisine, in which recipe ingredients share flavor compounds – Indian ingredients simply didn’t. In fact, they showed negative food pairing – that is, they barely shared flavor compounds at all. And the presence of spice in a recipe – cayenne pepper, garam masala, tamarind, ginger, cinnamon – made the negative pairing effect even more negative.

Flavor-pairing-wise, Indian food is the very opposite of ours, the yin to North America’s yang. What makes Indian food so distinctively scrumptious is that its components have next to nothing in common. When it comes to chicken tikka marsala, crab curry, and vindaloo, none of its flavor components are anything like the others.

Not all scientists find flavor pairing theory convincing. (“It’s ridiculous,” says Harry Klee, professor of horticultural science at the University of Florida, and an expert on the chemistry of tomato flavor.) Some argue that the human taste experience is far more complex than flavor pairing implies. Many studies, others point out, don’t take into account the fact that – of a large array of flavor and aroma molecules in a given food – often only a very few are critically important for taste.

In the meantime, flavor pairing theory has added a whole new dimension to cooking. It has “engaged people to try new things,” says Wender Bredie, professor of sensory science at the University of Copenhagen.

For more visual information on how flavors meet, check out Scientific American’s Flavor Connection map.