Mapping Flavor: first steps towards a "human cuisine genome"
The journal Nature recently published a fascinating study from Northeastern University on the prevalence of similar taste compounds in cuisines around the world. The researchers began by making a massive database of foods and the chemicals known to affect the flavor of those foods. They then made a map connecting those foods to one another based on how many of the same flavor compounds those foods shared, essentially creating a "cuisine genome" of interrelated flavors.
Then, they analyzed recipes from different cuisines using this map to see how flavors combine in different cooking traditions. One recent theory that's gained traction, especially among molecular chefs, is that ingredients which share flavors should go well together: Parmesan cheese shares many flavor compounds with white wine, and therefore, they should pair well.
However, their analysis complicates that "like with like" relationship: while it turns out that while North American and Western European dishes tend to use this model, Southern European and East Asian cuisines tend to shun similar flavor combos. For instance, Americans frequently use the similarly-flavored ingredients vanilla, butter and eggs together in the same dish. On the other hand, East Asians often use scallions, sesame and soy sauce simultaneously, which share very few of the same flavors.
And, most interestingly for wedgehead, take a look at this "spine map" of shared-flavor ingredients:
The lower-left quadrant of the map is where most of the cheese "lives", and look where the strong connections are: to rum, beer, and various nuts. While this explains some of the "like with like" pairings (an English meal of cheddar and ale, for instance) the cuisine breakdown shows that there's more than one way to skin a cat. Cooks from places like Italy and Korea would tend to join dissimilar flavors like mozzarella and basil, or cheese kimbab with rice and seaweed, and think they're just delicious.
Both "Like with like" and "opposites attract" open unique avenues to explore—I love the idea of a blue cheese and Jamaican rum tasting, as well as a sheep milk cheese rollled in toasted sesame. But what's most interesting about the organized map is that it offers structure to start experimenting in all sorts of ways, and shows us how truly sophisticated the whole business really is.
Most of the math in the article is above my head, but I'd love to hear from some more scientifically-literate wedge heads about what interesting connections they see in the data.