Flavor Assumptions

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I walked out of the house this bright morning and found a small blossom on the rosemary bush near our entrance, the first one of spring. We moved in almost twenty years ago, and the plant was massive and gnarled, even back then.

According to the neighbors at the farm next door, the rosemary bush was planted at least twenty years earlier. I trim it, sometimes, or not, and it just carries on year after year, blooming and growing and scenting the air around our house with its clean, piney perfume.

A still life study of insects on a sprig of rosemary.  Jan van Kessel the Elder (Antwerp 1626 – 1679) Source: Alain R. Truong

A still life study of insects on a sprig of rosemary.
Jan van Kessel the Elder (Antwerp 1626 – 1679)
Source: Alain R. Truong

Rosemary as an herb is even more deeply rooted in Western Europe cuisine and culture than the old plant is against our house wall. I cook with it all the time, combining it with whatever seems right–thyme, parsley, oregano, garlic. They all seem like intuitive flavor pairings.

There’s a beautiful interactive map of flavors created a couple of years ago by Scientific American that diagrams flavor connections between various foods, from rosemary to roast beef.

In Western cuisine, the tradition is to pair foods with overlapping flavors. I was raised in the culture of Western cuisine, which is probably why pairing rosemary with thyme or basil seems natural to me.

Excerpt from The Flavor Connection.  Click here for the full interactive map of foods with connecting flavor compounds. Source: Scientific American

Excerpt from The Flavor Connection.
Click here for the full interactive map of foods with connecting flavor compounds.
Source: Scientific American

A recent study showed just how different other traditions can be. Indian cuisine, for example, tends to pair non-matching flavors and chemical compounds, rather than those that have many points of overlap.

The study, called Spices form the basis of food pairing in Indian cuisine, starts by stating that “(c)ulinary practices are influenced by climate, culture, history and geography. Molecular composition of recipes in a cuisine reveals patterns in food preferences.” The food elements that form the basis for this kind of negative flavor pairing are spices.

The study authors posit that Indian cuisine developed along both nutritional and medicinal lines, and that the availability of spices played a large role in that. Perhaps the lack of ready accessibility to spices in Western culture–until fairly recently spices remained expensive–is one reason they play a smaller role in Western food matching.

A flavor graph of Indian cuisine. Ingredients are denoted by nodes and presence of shared flavor profile between any two ingredients is depicted as a link between them. The color of node reflects ingredient category and thickness of edges is proportional to extent of flavor profile sharing.  Caption/graph: Jain, Nk, Bagler

A flavor graph of Indian cuisine. Ingredients are denoted by nodes and
presence of shared flavor profile between any two ingredients is depicted as a link between them. The color of node reflects ingredient category and thickness of edges is proportional to extent of flavor profile sharing.
Caption/graph: Jain, Nk, Bagler

At any rate, I was surprised at how many of my own assumptions about which foods and flavors intuitively go together are based on the culture in which I was raised. I love Indian cuisine, I cook it occasionally, but I can’t say the pairings come naturally to me.

If assumptions as fundamental as ‘what tastes good together’ are so determined by culture, where do other assumptions diverge unseen?

Cayenne pepper (Capsicum annuum) Source: Plantcurator

Cayenne pepper (Capsicum annuum)
Source: Plantcurator

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