The spicy, aromatic flavor of a well-made navrattan korma or mattar paneer is a culinary experience like no other. A recent study by scientists at the Indian Institute of Technology in Jodhpur has uncovered just what makes Indian food so delicious. Their research proves that the complex of textures and sweet, savory, and spicy flavors is a truly outstanding synthesis.
Molecular Food Pairing
North American, Western European, and Latin American cuisine all rely upon the often unspoken theory of positive food pairing, by which certain ingredients go together due to similar flavor profiles. In other words, like goes with like. At the molecular level, certain chemical compounds create distinct tastes, such as the refreshing, fruit-green of acetal that is found in juices, whiskey, and raw beets. Accordingly, foods like beer and cheese that share compounds blend together well, but so too do odd combinations like white chocolate and caviar, which share high levels of amines or groups of proteins broken down from amino acids.
Flipping Pairing on its Head
Unlike Western cuisine, Indian culinary traditions rely on negative food pairing, by which ingredients with similar flavor compounds are less likely to be used together. Researchers AnupamJaina, Rakhi N Kb, and Ganesh Bagler, who specialize in biomedical text mining, surveyed 2500 recipes from Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati, Jain, Maharashtrian, Mughlai, Rajasthani, and South Indian culinary traditions. In the process, they considered almost 200 ingredients divided into 15 categories: spice, vegetable, fruit, plant derivative, nut/seed, cereal/crop, dairy, plant, pulse, herb, meat, fish/seafood, beverage, animal product, and flower. They found that:
By these rules, a common spice like cayenne pepper, which is the basis for many curries, is combined with complementary rather than similar spices. However, milk, butter, and other common ingredients from Western cuisine are associated with greater flavor overlap.
The Appeal of Negative Pairing
By the rules of Indian cuisine, many ingredients share little to no compounds, such that the overlap of flavors is often lower than in randomly-generated recipes. This research shows the importance of the networks of flavor at the heart of these overlaps, or lack thereof, in terms of the various chemical compounds involved in cooking. Much of what defines these culinary traditions is the dramatic effect of particular ingredients, specifically those that began as medicinal additives. Cayenne pepper, in particular, makes negative pairing more likely, alongside ingredients like green pepper, coriander, tamarind, ginger, and cinnamon. The magic is in the resulting chaos, or tasting how each stand-out flavor rubs up against one another.