Scientists solve the mystery of Indian food’s unique appeal

Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck
Ever wonder just what it is that makes Indian food so darn tasty? A team of researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology Jodhpur have, and their curiosity inspired them to scientifically analyze more than 2,000 different recipes to shed some light on the subject.
Study authors Anupam Jaina, Rakhi N K, and Ganesh Bagler investigated the frequency with which overlapping compounds factored into a dish’s ingredients, reported in a story published Wednesday. The trio of researchers used recipes posted on the website and looked at the “subtle molecular-level differences that distinguish the cuisine.”
A plethora of flavors
They found that the average flavor sharing in Indian cuisine was “significantly” lower than they had expected. Unlike in Western cooking, where ingredients are usually paired together for their similar flavors, the average Indian dish includes a minimum of seven different ingredients, most of which do not contain overlapping flavors, according to the study authors.
While cayenne, green bell pepper, coriander, and garam masala tend to be paired with ingredients with no chemical overlap, each one brings a unique component that winds up being incorporated into the finished meal, the website added. The result is a menu filled with flavorful dishes for a cuisine that uses more than half of the estimated 381 known cooking ingredients on Earth.
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Essentially, as the Washington Post explains, Indian food does something radically different than US or other Western cuisine, and it does so at the molecular level. Most Western chefs prefer to make dishes using ingredients with overlapping flavors, while some Asian foods use ingredients that do not overlap in flavor. Indian food takes the latter concept and turns it up a notch.
If you overlap your flavors, you’re gonna have a bad time
The Indian Institute of Technology Jodhpur team broke down the ingredients used in different dishes and compared how frequently and heavily those ingredients shared flavor compounds. Even when foods seem dissimilar, such as an onion and a coconut, the in-depth analysis showed that there was some overlap in their flavor make-up, the study authors explained.
They broke down the nearly 2,500 recipes and looked for overlapping flavor compounds in the more than 200 total ingredients used in those dishes. Their work revealed that, unlike meals that were prepared by Western chefs, Indian cuisine tended to mix ingredients whose flavors do not overlap at all. The closer two ingredients are in flavor, the less likely they are to be used in the same Indian dish, according to the Washington Post.
So while many Indian recipes contain spices such as cayenne (the basis of curry powder), it is unlikely to contain two spices or ingredients that share similar flavors, and items such as bread, milk, rice, and butter, all of which are frequently used in the West, were found to be associated with flavor parings that matched.
“The takeaway is that part of what makes Indian food so appealing is the way flavors rub up against each other,” the website said. “The cuisine is complicated, no doubt: the average Indian dish, after all, contains at least 7 ingredients… but all those ingredients – and the spices especially – are all uniquely important because in any single dish, each one brings a unique flavor.”
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“But the upshot should also be a thought that we might be approaching food from the wrong angle,” it added. “Combining ingredients with like flavors is a useful (and often delicious) strategy, but it might be a somewhat misleading rule of thumb. Indian cuisine, after all, is cherished globally, and yet hinges on a decidedly different ingredient pairing logic.”
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