A new analysis of 2000 popular recipes has revealed why Indian food, coveted around the world for its intoxicating flavours and aromas, tastes so unique. The analysis indicates that the construction of flavours at a molecular level is radically different to that found in Western cuisine.

Food chemists have broken down flavours into precise chemical compounds that give of a distinct taste when combined. For example, one of the most simple of these compounds is acetal which is found in whiskey, apple juice, orange juice and raw beets, and is described as ‘pleasant’ and ‘refreshing’ with a ‘fruity green odor’. On average each food ingredients have over 50 flavour compounds. Chemistry students should look further into the different flavour compounds and how they are structured at a molecular level.

Scientific American created a chart on 2013 which shows foods which share the most flavour compounds with others. Some are fairly predictable, such as peanut butter and roasted peanuts, but others are more surprising. Strawberries, for instance, have more flavour compounds in common with white wine than apples or honey.

Western dishes are much more likely to contain ingredients that have overlapping flavour compounds, but this is where Asian food, and Indian food in particular differs radically. The Indian Institute of Technology broke down several thousand recipes to their ingredients and compared how often and heavily ingredients share flavour compounds. The result was that Indian dishes tend to mix ingredients whose flavours do not overlap at all, unlike in Western cuisine. They also found that spices usually indicate dishes with flavours that have no common chemical ground, particularly cayenne, coriander and garam masala. Geography students could consider the importance of location in sourcing ingredients and developing flavour combinations.

The researchers noted that ‘each of the spices is uniquely placed in its recipe to shape the flavour sharing pattern with the rest of the ingredients’. They concluded that a big part of the appeal of Indian food is the way flavours rub up against each other, in contrast to the combining of like flavours in Western cuisine.

Human Sciences and HSPS students might consider what this demonstrates about food and it’s variation as a key aspect of culture and community, while History students could look into further into the original development of Western and Indian cuisines, as well as their migration around the world.

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