The cultural diversity of culinary practice, as illustrated by the variety of regional cuisines, raises the question of whether there are any general patterns that determine the ingredient combinations used in food today or principles that transcend individual tastes and recipes. We introduce a flavor network that captures the flavor compounds shared by culinary ingredients. 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. Given the increasing availability of information on food preparation, our data-driven investigation opens new avenues towards a systematic understanding of culinary practice.
As omnivores, humans have historically faced the difficult task of identifying and gathering food that satisfies nutritional needs while avoiding foodborne illnesses. This process has contributed to the current diet of humans, which is influenced by factors ranging from an evolved preference for sugar and fat to palatability, nutritional value, culture, ease of production, and climate. The relatively small number of recipes in use (∼10E6, e.g. http://cookpad.com) compared to the enormous number of potential recipes (>10E15), together with the frequent recurrence of particular combinations in various regional cuisines, indicates that we are exploiting but a tiny fraction of the potential combinations. Although this pattern itself can be explained by a simple evolutionary model or data-driven approaches, a fundamental question still remains: are there any quantifiable and reproducible principles behind our choice of certain ingredient combinations and avoidance of others?
Although many factors such as colors, texture, temperature, and sound play an important role in food sensation, palatability is largely determined by flavor, representing a group of sensations including odors (due to molecules that can bind olfactory receptors), tastes (due to molecules that stimulate taste buds), and freshness or pungency (trigeminal senses). Therefore, the flavor compound (chemical) profile of the culinary ingredients is a natural starting point for a systematic search for principles that might underlie our choice of acceptable ingredient combinations.
A hypothesis, which over the past decade has received attention among some chefs and food scientists, states that ingredients sharing flavor compounds are more likely to taste well together than ingredients that do not (for more info, see http://www.foodpairing.com). This food pairing hypothesis has been used to search for novel ingredient combinations and has prompted, for example, some contemporary restaurants to combine white chocolate and caviar, as they share trimethylamine and other flavor compounds, or chocolate and blue cheese that share at least 73 flavor compounds. As we search for evidence supporting (or refuting) any ‘rules’ that may underlie our recipes, we must bear in mind that the scientific analysis of any art, including the art of cooking, is unlikely to be capable of explaining every aspect of the artistic creativity involved. Furthermore, there are many ingredients whose main role in a recipe may not be only flavoring but something else as well (e.g. eggs' role to ensure mechanical stability or paprika's role to add vivid colors). Finally, the flavor of a dish owes as much to the mode of preparation as to the choice of particular ingredients. However, one hypothesis is that, given the large number of recipes we use in our analysis (56,498), such factors can be systematically filtered out, allowing for the discovery of patterns that may transcend specific dishes or ingredients.
Via Dr. Stefan Gruenwald