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What do blue cheese and chocolate have in common? One’s a savoury cheese, the other a sweet dessert. Protein versus sugar: right? They should be kept apart. Actually, this is wrong. Both blue cheese and chocolate actually share 73 of the same flavour compounds, and mixing them together could just create unexpected, but pleasurable, taste combinations. And this isn’t the only example of unexplored commonalities between foods that are seldom linked. White chocolate and caviar; white wine and Parmigiano cheese, coffee and beef, mussels and mozzarella, sake and tomatoes, pepper and walnuts: these odd pairings actually share many common molecules (around 50, on average), and thus can exist in harmony, side by side, on a plate (and in your mouth). According to recent studies conducted by two researches from Boston University and published by Nature, it is these shared molecules that make these seemingly odd pairings pleasant, and worth exploring.
It’s studies like these that have sparked the desire in many chefs to experiment with new recipes – but this, apparently, is not enough. According to the research, while today’s chefs are inventive, there are many more successful recipes just waiting to be discovered. Numerically speaking, the researchers estimate that there are about 1 million recipes in use today, out of a potential and possible one hundred million. And if we’d like to just begin to imagine, a good starting point would be the network of tastes from Nature, the incredible map of culinary connections, where each ingredient is a knot and every link between knots means that the two share at least one taste. The kind of net that joins them all together is more or less determined by the number of shared flavour compounds.
Among the various cuisines examined by this study (there were 5 in all), one can find many differences and many similarities. If a recipe on average is made up of around 10 ingredients, no matter its origin, everything changes when you consider taste. Why, for example, does a Northern European dish taste so different from an Indian one? According to the maps published in Nature, it’s all hidden in the principles of the utilized tastes.
In Western cuisines, dishes tend to combine similar tastes, while Eastern cooking leans towards joining the ying and the yang – seeking harmony between opposites. In Paris, for instance, chefs tend to choose ingredients with a very high number of shared flavour compounds, while a Thai cook will do the opposite on purpose. In each of the 5 analyzed kinds of cuisine (which included more than 56 thousand recipes linked by 381 common ingredients), the most common base ingredients indicate important differences. The only common denominator between the cuisines of Latin America, Asia and the Mediterranean, for examples, is the use of garlic; while Latin Americans and Southern Europeans share a love of onion and tomato. North Americans and Europeans make generous use of milk, flour, eggs and butter.